The Roman Catholic church has taken the first step towards what could be a historic shift away from its total ban on the use of condoms.
Pope Benedict XVI’s “health minister” is understood to be urging him to accept that in restricted circumstances - specifically the prevention of Aids - barrier contraception is the lesser of two evils.
The recommendations, which have not been made public, still have to be reviewed by the traditionally conservative Vatican department responsible for safeguarding theological orthodoxy, and then by the Pope himself, before any decision is made.
The rethink, commissioned by Pope Benedict following his election last year, could save millions of lives around the world. It is likely to be raised today when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has his first full discussion with the Pope at an audience in the Vatican.
Scientists are working on a contraceptive treatment which would stop men ejaculating sperm.
King’s College London researchers saw blood pressure and schizophrenia drugs had this effect, and have identified chemicals which can do the same thing.
The team now plan to test the chemicals in animal and human studies and hope to have a treatment in five years.
Fertility experts welcomed the work, saying it could mean couples could share contraceptive responsibility.