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NOW MEN, TOO, CAN `EXPERIENCE' PREGNANCY

A new device aims at helping men better empathize with their expectant spouses by making them "pregnant" with 35 pounds of bulging belly, backache, shortness of breath and other symptoms that can make a guy feel like he's a few breaths shy of the delivery room.

The Empathy Belly was developed by pre-natal counselor Linda Ware. It uses water-filled bladders, lead balls and Velcro to mimic about 20 symptoms of pregnancy for men who care enough to strap on the apparatus and take a walk on the, well, big side."It'll give you just about everything short of morning sickness and varicose veins," says Ware, who formed Birthways Inc. of Redmond, Wash., to market the vest-like garment. Over the past five years, Ware went through about 10 prototypes and sought advice from medical and counseling professionals to perfect it.

The Empathy Belly has been tested in schools, hospitals and counseling centers. Ware believes the greatest potential market is in schools, counseling centers and agencies involved in trying to stem the tide of teen pregnancies.

She believes the device helps "shatter the romantic illusions of pregnancy sometimes shared by teenage girls" and "teaches boys more about the consequences of sexual activity."

It was an eye-opener for a reporter - unmarried and childless - who allowed himself to be swathed in Velcro-tabbed canvass and adorned with a series of weights and chest constrictors.

A plastic bladder in the "belly" of the vest can be filled with water to varying levels to simulate the different stages of pregnancy. At the top and to the sides of the vest are pockets for lead balls that press in on the upper rib cage the way the elbows and knees of a developing fetus can be felt in some advanced pregnancies, Ware said.

Inside the stomach bladder is a light pendulum that swings when jostled by outside motion. It is designed to duplicate the sensation of a baby's kicks as the fetus moves around the womb.

The real kicker in the Empathy Belly's panoply of discomforts is a separate bag that fits under the bottom of the vest to ride heavily over the bladder and give wearers concern about where the nearest bathroom is located.

The realism takes on a new dimension after the chest is wrapped snugly with a wide band of cotton and elastic. The resulting constriction - intended to resemble the shortness of breath that occurs as the developing fetus impinges on the rib cage - turns normal activity into aerobics.

Sitting down leaves the bladder compressed between a 5-pound weight and the chair seat, so much so that most people want to stagger up and waddle to the bathroom.