Is Permanent Contraception on the Fast Track? With Gates Funding, It Just Might Be

Permanent contraception without surgery is kind of the dream for those who don’t want to have kids or those who are finished growing their families. It's also a dream of global development leaders who want to give women more control over their reproductive lives and slow population growth in poor countries. 

The Gates Foundation is hot on the trail of permanent contraception, including with a $5 million grant to the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).

Related: Gates Has a New Partner in Push to Advance Injectable Contraceptive

The grant is being used to develop a single-dose contraceptive that does not require surgery and is potentially permanent. Of course, this type of work—and any type of maternal health work related to contraception, abortion, and family planning, for that matter—has drawn condemnation from pro-life organizations. This is to be expected. But according to research lead Dr. Jeffrey Jensen, the goal of developing this particular drug is “to make every pregnancy planned and highly desired.”

The grant, which was awarded last October, is drawing increased criticism now because it’s on a fast track. Dr. Jensen and his team, which includes Ov Slayden and his group of investigators at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, created the Oregon Permanent Contraception Research Center, the first and only research center of its kind. The doctors and their teams have researched one approach involving rhesus monkeys and baboons and the use of an FDA-approved treatment for varicose veins.

Dr. Jensen explains, “My belief is we can adapt existing agents and repurpose them, and that would reduce the development time and improve our ability to get the work done.” Meaning that it’s possible that his work will move to human clinical trials more quickly.

While permanent contraception is not the silver bullet that’s going to cure all of what ails least-developed countries, it’s a step in the right direction.

For example, OHSU conducted a study that showed at least 50 percent of women in Uganda no longer wanted to have more children, yet only 2 percent had access to permanent contraception. Additionally, according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 225 million women in developing countries would like to either delay or stop having children, but aren’t using any form of contraception. The glaring gap in that data, however, is that the WHO does not make the distinction between the number of women who wish to delay pregnancy and those want to stop having children altogether.

The Gates Foundation, which calls family planning a “vital component of global health and development,” has made related grants since as far back as 1995. However, over the past few years, the foundation’s family planning grantmaking has been all over the place. In 2012, Gates awarded just 15 related grants for just under $60 million, but the following year, it awarded 39 family planning grants for just under $250 million.

So far this year, the Gates Foundation has only awarded seven related grants for a paltry $5.5 million. But the foundation tends to award a good number of grants in the second half of the year. We’ll keep a close eye on its family planning grants to see if that pattern holds true for 2015.