Green light for a night of passion

Fertility computers have had a bad press, but the new Lady-Comp claims to be as safe as the Pill, by using a 'traffic-light' system. Catherine Townsend reports on the hi-tech approach to natural contraception
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Fifty years after the contraceptive pill supposedly liberated women, many are searching for more organic alternatives after suffering distressing side-effects. And, perhaps surprisingly, a fertility computer is quietly staging a comeback for women who are looking for something else.

Fifty years after the contraceptive pill supposedly liberated women, many are searching for more organic alternatives after suffering distressing side-effects. And, perhaps surprisingly, a fertility computer is quietly staging a comeback for women who are looking for something else.

Lady-Comp - little bigger than a portable CD player - works by measuring a woman's basal body temperature first thing in the morning, and warns of ovulation through a series of "traffic light" alerts. At present, the computer is only available via the internet but its manufacturer is hoping to put their invention into British stores in the near future amid increasing demand from British women. According to Petra Schenke, managing director of the German-based manufacturer Valley Electronics, the product has been slow to take off in the UK. "The Pill is very available and there is not yet the emphasis on natural family planning that there is in Germany," she says.

That's not the only reason British women are sceptical: there's also the bad press surrounding another fertility computer, Persona, which was promoted as "the biggest thing to happen to contraception since the 1960s" when it hit UK shelves in 1996. Hailed as a breakthrough for women who could not take the Pill, Persona was even endorsed by the Vatican. But the system, which relied on women testing their urine several times a month, soon had Marie Stopes International estimating that an extra 60 women a month were seeking abortions, and led the deputy chief medical officer to warn women not to use it if becoming pregnant would be "unacceptable".

The device developed a reputation as a flop, and in 2002, 63 women who had become pregnant sued the manufacturer Unipath, who claimed a 94 per cent success rate. A spokesman for Unipath declined to comment on the pending litigation. So far, nine clinical trials of Lady-Comp have been conducted in Europe, including one of 10,000 menstrual cycles involving 648 women in Switzerland and Germany. Valley Electronics claims that the device has a 99.3 per cent success rate - "as safe as the Pill" - on green days.

The system appeals to women in monogamous relationships (Lady-Comp does not protect against Sexually Transmitted Diseases) who are looking for a more organic alternative. "I got sick of pumping my body full of hormones," says Christina, a 30-year-old west London devotee who lives with her boyfriend, and bought the device a year ago. "I really got to know my own cycle, which was impossible with the Pill because I taking so many hormones."

Lady-Comp's creator Dr Hubertus Rechberg, a German management consultant with a PhD in economics, invented the system after his wife got cramps in her legs at night while she was taking the Pill. He claims that the key to his device's accuracy is the precise way it measures hormones around the time of ovulation. He explains that it is different from Persona because "we allow a five-day window around the time of ovulation, since the life cycle of sperm can be up to four days".

The design is straightforward: the computer wakes the user with a chiming musical alarm and then a banana-shaped thermometer uncoils. She puts the thermometer under her tongue for 30 seconds, and the device measures her basal body temperature, analysing it against a database of thousands of other women's cycles. Then, based on the fact that the temperature rises around the time of ovulation, Lady-Comp predicts when she is most likely to get pregnant.

A red light means that she must avoid sex or use a back-up contraceptive. Green means go for it and yellow equals "uncertain". During ovulation, a woman gets a flashing red light. "Yellow means that the system is still learning a woman's cycle," says a spokeswoman for distributors Natural Methods. "After she uses the system for a while she will get very few yellow days." Lady-Comp tells the user when she's due to get her period - with a flashing letter "M" for menstruation. The system also allows for irregular cycles, and if a woman is sick and has a high temperature, it skips that day.

Although the device's creators claim that the technology is the key to its success, some believe that it could lull women into a false sense of security. "I would be very sceptical of any attempt to blind people with science, because a woman's temperature can go up for a variety of reasons, then go back down," says Roy Husemeyer, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Lincoln County Hospital. "What other people are doing is of no consequence, since each woman's cycle is so individual."

According to the manufacturers, Lady-Comp gives women approximately 10-12 green and eight to 10 red days per month for an average user. Some women say it is more conservative: "It gives me a lot of red-light days - this month I have had 12 so far," says Christina. But after suffering an accidental pregnancy using another fertility computer, she says the Lady-Comp has proved much more reliable. Mary, a UK user who has written a web page chronicling her experience over four years of using the device, appreciates the new understanding it has given her of her body. "I like the feedback it gives about what my body is doing," she says. "It has put me more in touch with my own cycle. I like getting two days' notice before my period starts. I like knowing that I'm ovulating regularly."

Natural contraception can, says the Family Planning Association, be an effective method for the right person. "It's a really good and effective form of contraception," a spokeswoman says, "but our view is that women should be trained by a teacher to understand all of the signs." She says women also have to be prepared to work at it. "It's a method that requires a certain level of commitment, since obviously a woman has to abstain at certain times of the month and look for changes in her cycle. But a computer can be a very effective tool."

According to Valley Electronics - which handles the bulk of European orders - there are about 70,000 Lady-Comps in circulation in Germany, and 30,000 throughout Mexico, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Italy. They are already winning plaudits from medical experts in the US and Canada and - pending approval from the US Food and Drug Administration - should hit American drugstore shelves within months.

Of course, there are those who remain sceptical. A spokeswoman for Marie Stopes International, although she is not familiar with the device, says that the charity would not recommend it. "A woman has a four per cent chance of conceiving on any day without contraception, and a 28 per cent chance on fertile days," she says. The cost is another factor: at €745 (£495), Lady-Comp is not cheap. But the manufacturer points out that there is no need to order follow-up supplies. According to the manufacturer's claims, the average life expectancy of a Lady-Comp is eight to 10 years. Women can also send their computers to be analysed for fertility problems.

While no method is perfect, women find knowing about their cycles "empowering". As Mary writes on her website: "It will not stop you from catching diseases, but gives you information on how to work with your body to avoid, or promote, pregnancy."

PREVENTATIVE MEDICINE

IUD

Invented in 1909, the Intrauterine Device - aka the coil - looks alarmingly like a fishhook. It stimulates an inflammatory reaction, releasing "macrophage" cells that destroy sperm before reaching the fallopian tubes. It is up to 99 per cent effective.

Combined Pill

The Pill revolutionised the way in which women controlled their bodies. By ingesting hormones contained in the Pill, the body is fooled into thinking it's already pregnant. Egg production stops, vaginal mucus thickens and the womb becomes a less accommodating environment for fertility. It is 99 per cent effective.

Contraceptive injections

Used for around 30 years. Hormones are injected into the buttock, blocking ovulation in a manner similar to the Pill. It requires injections every 12 weeks, and is up to 99 per cent protective.

Persona

Launched in October 1996, Persona is a refined version of the rhythm method. By measuring hormone levels in the urine, it predicts safe time frames in which to have unprotected sex.

Male contraceptive Pill

Research indicates that the male daily oral contraceptive Pill, with an additional monthly testosterone injection, may be available by 2005.

Andrea San-Pedro

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