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Japan set to approve the pill after 35 years

TOKYO -- Japan looks set to approve the birth control pill, some 35 years after it first appeared in the West.

Activists told Reuters a key government committee would recommend Wednesday that the ban on the pill be lifted.Although approval by the health minister is also required, that is little more than a formality once committee approval has been given, meaning the pill could be available this autumn.

"The fact that we will finally be able to dispense low-dose birth control pills is quite a significant step," said Kunio Kitamura, head of the Japan Family Planning Association. "Now Japanese women will finally have the contraceptive choices that women in other countries have."

Looking back on the drawn-out fight for the pill's approval, he added: "I didn't think it would take this long."

Approval is also likely to be granted to two other forms of birth control already used overseas -- a type of intrauterine device and the female condom, said Midori Ashida of the Professional Women's Coalition for Sexuality and Health.

Japan is presently the only industrialized country to prohibit use of the pill for contraceptive purposes. Low-dose contraceptives are banned altogether while high- and medium-dose pills may be legally prescribed only for menstrual disorders.

Condoms are Japan's main form of birth control, a factor behind the prevalence of abortion.

Japanese opponents of the pill have said its use would promote promiscuity, while heavy coverage of potential side effects has kept most women indifferent to its approval.

In 1992 the pill came within a hair's breadth of official approval, only to be rebuffed by the Health Ministry because of fears that its use would lead to a surge in AIDS.

Hopes also rose in 1995 but were dashed again after a scare in Europe about possible links between the pill and blood clots.

Most recently, concerns arose that estrogen-tainted waste from women who use the pill might cause reproductive problems after finding its way into the environment.