WASHINGTON - A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences said Wednesday that the United States had fallen decades behind Europe in the development of contraceptives and called for government action to stimulate research on birth control. The report said research on contraception had declined in this country because of lawsuits against the makers of birth control devices for damages caused by their products, political fights over abortion, federal drug approval policies that consider only the risks of new contraceptives and a lack of government financing.
For the same reasons, companies in the United States are unwilling to try to market already-researched methods, the report said.
Contraceptive methods now available do not match the needs of many people, particularly young women who find the available methods inconvenient, the report asserted.
This has led to millions of unwanted pregnancies, unnecessary abortions and avoidable sterilizations, the report said.
No fundamentally new contraceptives have been developed in the past three decades "and the outlook for new contraceptive development is bleak," Dr. Luigi Mastroianni, chairman of the committee, said in a statement.
The report said that until 1980s, 17 major companies in the United States were carrying on contraceptive development, but that the number had now dropped to one.
In strongly worded statements, the committee from the academy's Institute of Medicine and National Research Council recommended new laws to shield companies from lawsuits and asked the federal government to establish less stringent rules for the approval of new contraceptives.
The report drew immediate fire from anti-abortion groups, while it buoyed the hopes of family planning groups.
"While we in the United States make do with the same range of options available 30 years ago, in some European countries people can choose among contraceptive implants, injectable contraceptives, and a variety of pills, IUDs, and sterilization techniques not available here," said Mastroianni, director of the division of human reproduction at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia.
"Moreover," he went on, "many European countries are years ahead of the United States in the development of further contraceptive advances such as reversible male and female sterilization, a once-a-month pill that induces menstruation and methods that interfere with sperm production."
About 95 percent of sexually active women of reproductive age, 15 to 44 years old, have used contraceptives, the report said.
The report said 1.2-million to 3-million accidental pregnancies occur in the United States each year as a result of contraceptive failures, including failure of the drug or device and use that is too difficult to maintain.
The report said half of the 1.5-million abortions in the United States result from such failures.
The academy's report can be obtained from the National Academy Press, 2100 Constitution Ave. NW., Washington, D.C. 20418.