Like something out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper , a high-tech yet oddly retro new contraceptive device has alighted onto bedside tables across the New York City area. Called Lady-Comp, this computerized update of the long-mistrusted rhythm method promises to emancipate women from the bloated, fluttering stomachs and diluted sex drives that have always accompanied birth-control pills. “I love using it,” said Monica, a 37-year-old early adopter who works in education at a Manhattan cultural institution and didn’t want her last name used. “It seems like this Japanese space toy.”
In fact, Lady-Comp hails from Germany, the 1992 invention of one Hubertus Rechberg, a management consultant near Munich who developed it after his wife got cramps in her legs at night while she was taking the Pill.
According to Dr. Rechberg (who has a Ph.D. in economics), there are approximately 70,000 Lady-Comp units now in circulation in Germany and 30,000 more throughout Mexico, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Italy. The $425 gizmo has yet to win F.D.A. approval, but its American distributor, RaXMedical, estimates that about 20 to 30 enterprising gals of Gotham-or their amorous partners-have ordered it online over the past nine months.
One 33-year-old who works in publishing and preferred to remain anonymous received a Lady-Comp from her technophile fiancé after he heard about it from his business partner’s wife. “He’s into gadgets,” she said. “He got it for me, or for us, as a Christmas present. My reaction was, ‘Huh?'” The couple has been happily using it ever since. “It’s quite a boon,” she said.
About the size of a Discman, the device resembles “two dessert plates facing each other like a clam,” as one user put it. The woman’s daily temperature is stored in the computer, which analyzes it against a data base of thousands of women’s menstrual cycles. Based on the fact that a woman’s basal temperature (her lowest body temperature, taken first thing in the morning) rises around the time of ovulation, Lady-Comp predicts when she is most and least likely to get pregnant and when her period is due. It learns its users’ habits like a feminine circadian TiVo, with flashing lights indicating when it’s safe to have sex or not. Red means “no nookie,” green means “go for it” and yellow is something in between-like, only have sex if you really have to.
There is also a visual prompt-“M”-when you’re about to get your period. “It’s cool,” said the 33-year-old. “Like you’ve won a prize.”
The intriguing appliance is intended to rest by the bedside, where it begins every morning with a pleasant little alarm bell, reminding the woman to take her temperature. “It looks like a digital clock,” said Monica. A thermometer uncoils, which the woman slips into her mouth for a 30-second reading. Relieved from condom duty, men are more than happy to take part in this process; one boyfriend described the process as “fishing”-he leans over in bed and “hooks her under her tongue,” as if his beloved were a brook trout.
A certain frisson of danger might add to the couple’s pleasure. “It’s just a computer-validated form of the rhythm method,” conceded the technophile boyfriend. “Even when it’s blinking green, it’s a leap of faith.”
“The husbands always call it ‘Lady-Cop,'” Monica said, “because it’s kind of conservative.”
‘Using Condoms Was Such a Pain in the Ass’
The rhythm method, with its thermometers and graph paper, has been out of fashion since the 1950’s. Isn’t this the old Catholic standby responsible for 12-child families around the world? Wasn’t this what a generation of Our Bodies, Ourselves mothers taught us to avoid? And what about the Pill?
Invented in 1951 by Carl Djerassi, popularized throughout the 60’s and consistently refined ever since, the birth-control pill has long been cited as a symbol of women’s liberation from the unreliable rhythm method, the creepy I.U.D. and the flying-saucer diaphragm. But for a post–(Mary) McCarthy generation raised to fear AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, who are taught to rely on the Pill only if in a monogamous relationship, those little pink plastic cases are nothing if not oppressive. Not to mention that 2004 is a time of yoga and organic pomegranate juice; women don’t necessarily want to be swallowing hormones from age 15 to 45.
“I hate the pill,” said the 33-year-old. “It makes me gain weight and get moody.”
“To me, getting off the pill was huge,” said Alexandra Ince, 35, a Lady-Comp enthusiast who lives in Connecticut and works in the city. “It sounds like a cliché, but it was very liberating.”
“I was looking for something that didn’t make me feel sick or that I had to remember to take,” said Monica, the cultural-institution educator. “We used condoms; if something happened, we were prepared to deal with the result. But using condoms was such a pain in the ass.”
Sara, a Lady-Comp devotee who works in banking in upstate New York, said the device had vastly improved her sex life. “It makes you appreciate the green days,” she said. “Before [when she was on the Pill], we were just lazy about it, thinking we could do it any day. And now my sex drive is much better.”
The Lady-Comp users contacted by The Observer were all in stable relationships where sexually transmitted disease was not a concern and getting pregnant would not be a total catastrophe. “If I were 22, it probably would not be a good method,” said Carol, a 35-year-old editor who lives in Park Slope and used Lady-Comp to guard against pregnancy for a year and a half (she’s now expecting her first child). “But as a married woman it works fine, because you’re not necessarily wanting to have sex twice a day. You can work around the constraints. And you can also use it when you’re trying to get pregnant.”
Don’t think Dr. Rechberg hasn’t thought of that. Indeed, he is also marketing a sister gadget, Baby-Comp ($595)-essentially the same machine as Lady-Comp, with a few added bells and whistles for women who want to become pregnant.
When asked by phone about his plans for marketing and selling Lady-Comp in the U.S., Dr. Rechberg complained about the onerous filing requirements and “political biases” of the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates all medical devices sold in the U.S. He called the agency “Orwellian.”
“You don’t have this in any other country in the world,” Dr. Rechberg said. “We’ll pursue those countries that are interested in it; there are 150 other countries in the world. What’s the point of trying to sell in the U.S. when it is like trying to break rocks?
“If you come up with something new, the establishment is of course against it,” Dr. Rechberg continued. “Our allies are the women who are interested in getting rid of pills and IUD’s and stuff, and the guys who don’t want to have a bad conscience anymore because their women are poisoning themselves. Another concern is the environment-about the hormones entering the water cycle through the urine of all these women and girls.”
Dr. Rechberg said that nine clinical trials of Lady-Comp had been conducted in Europe, including one of 10,000 menstrual cycles involving 648 women in Switzerland and Germany; one of them was published in the medical journal Advances in Contraception in 1998. The conclusion was that Lady-Comp had proven 99.3 percent reliable on “green” days. As an added bonus, he said, women who have questions about their cycles, who are having trouble getting pregnant or are just generally curious, can send their Lady-Comp back to the company, which will analyze the data they’ve collected and diagnose fertility problems or thyroid conditions.
For all these wondrous attributes, Dr. Rechberg acknowledged that correct usage was the key to Lady-Comp’s effectiveness.
“If you get pregnant on a red day, it’s not our fault,” he said.
Cathy MacEachern, the customer-support manager of RaXMedical, Lady-Comp’s American distributor, was more diplomatic about the F.D.A. holdup.
“There are claims made regarding the contraceptive reliability that the F.D.A. has an issue with, as they would with any natural family-planning tool,” she said. “The studies were done in a European market, and they were retrospective studies, so we’ll remove the claim of reliability, even though the device is very safe and reliable. The F.D.A.’s job is not to find a good product for women, it’s to say that the product meets their standards.”
Already, she said, female interest in the Lady-Comp (and Baby-Comp) devices has exceeded that in two other, considerably cheaper, basal-temperature monitors RaXMedical distributes, the Petit Sophia and the Bioself. Ms. MacEachern anticipates a green light (so to speak) from the F.D.A. in two months or so, if all proceeds smoothly.
Sharon Snider, a spokesperson for the F.D.A., said that the administration could not confirm or deny that a Lady-Comp application had been filed, but that they approved 4,000 to 5,000 new medical devices every year. Both the Bioself and the Petit Sophia were approved for marketing in the U.S. in 1992 and 2003.
“The bottom line is that we’re looking to make sure the product is safe and effective for its intended use,” Ms. Snider said.
‘Basically a Thermometer’
Whatever its F.D.A. fate, the manufacturers of Lady-Comp seem destined for resistance from the established medical community, who display skepticism of a non-prescription, eat-granola-barefoot-in-the-grass approach to birth control even with a high-tech twist.
“It’s basically a thermometer. Nothing more, nothing less,” said Dr. Frederick Licciardi, an Associate Professor at N.Y.U. School of Medicine in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Therefore it’s as accurate as a thermometer in helping with contraception or conception. Therefore it’s as useless as a thermometer.
“Natural family planning will help lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant,” Dr. Licciardi continued. “The failure rate of that method of contraception is the highest of any form of birth control. You could follow all the steps perfectly and still get pregnant. The reason why the methods are less effective-even in a very regular person-is that there is still some swing in the time of ovulation.”
“The idea of avoiding pregnancy by precise identification of when ovulation occurs has been around for decades,” said Dr. Mark I. Evans, an ob-gyn at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. “Mostly it hasn’t worked.”
“When you get pregnant do they pay for bringing up the baby?” said Dr. Jacques Moritz, also of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. “There might not be anything wrong with it-but if you have an irregular cycle, this is gonna be a disaster.”
Representatives of Planned Parenthood said they’d heard of the device, but refused to comment on anything that wasn’t a “real” contraceptive.
“I love the idea,” said Manhattan psychologist Dr. Judy Kuriansky, who specializes in young women. “I think it’s fabulous, it keeps up with the times, with women’s lives, with what women really want. But we say, use a condom too.”
Of course, using a condom is the last thing that men in a monogamous relationship feel like doing.
Ms. Ince’s husband, Brandon, thinks that if anything, Lady-Comp errs on the side of safety. “The downside of the Lady-Comp is that there’s not a whole lot of green days-you know, when you’ve known someone for 10 years, the green days are few and far between already,” he joked. “You have to make sure all moons are aligned for those green days. There are probably, maybe eight days of the cycle that are green. That’s 22 days of either caution or red.”
“My conspiracy theory is that the birth-control-pill companies don’t want people to know about [Lady-Comp] because it’s such a challenge to their market,” huffed Ms. Ince. “You hear doctors talk about it as if it’s a crackpot scheme, but it’s natural, the basics of a woman’s fertility. I just think there’s this huge disconnect with what women know about their bodies and their fertility cycles. If I start talking to women about it, they’re like me-they know so little about what all the different elements are. I don’t know if it’s male-dominated education, or if doctors don’t think women can’t handle that information responsibly …. I think on those green days you can really trust it.”
“It’s so lovely,” exulted Monica. “You think you know about your body, but you don’t until you use a device like Lady-Comp.”