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FOR THE FIRST time in 25 years, the federal government has approved a new form of contraception. It's about time.

While it has surged ahead in other technical fields, the United States has been lagging in research on birth control, and the federal government has given the field little encouragement. Norplant, the method just approved, is not new. It has already been used by 355,000 women elsewhere and is now on the market in 14 countries.

The most revolutionary aspect of the new method, in which hormones are released slowly from tiny tubes inserted under the skin, is that it lasts for five years. There is a relatively high initial cost; but once the investment is made, the implant remains effective for that extended time without anything new to buy or to do.

If the woman decides she wishes to become pregnant, Norplant can be removed and normal fertility restored.

Contraceptives are about choice -- about the freedom of individuals to decide when they will have babies and when they won't. They are about families that are planned for, children who arrive when parents are most willing and best able to care for them. A five-year method is a great advance for many who want this kind of choice.

There is a clear need for new methods of contraception. Among the industrialized nations, the United States has a high pregnancy rate and a high abortion rate.

Critics may fear that this device will lead to increased teen-age sexual activity. But no contraceptive should be kept off the market, away from the use of all women, because of such fears.

And young boys and girls should be discouraged from sexual activity through education about its emotional and physical consequences for them, not punished for their missteps with pregnancies for which they are woefully unprepared.

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