The birth control pill certainly represents a victory for women’s rights, but the realities of taking a daily medication, not to mention the expense and some unpleasant side effects makes it seem more a burden for women than a reproductive equalizer. Enter male birth control, which, researchers say, might finally help men and women to shoulder life’s responsibilities together in about 10 years.
In an article in the New York Times, reporter Pam Belluck explores all of the male-based methods of contraception currently in development that promise to be more long-term than a condom and require less commitment than a vasectomy. What’s remarkable about that story is how similarly it reads to the development of female contraceptives.
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The original female birth control pill was developed as a fertility treatment, but when it failed, researchers realized they had a potentially effective contraceptive on their hands. Similarly, most of the male contraceptives that have been developed began as treatments for unrelated illnesses. For example, one drug called gamendazole was first developed as an anticancer drug, but interrupts the maturation cycle of the sperm, rendering it nonfunctional. Two other “accidental discovery” drugs are in early stage development as well: a blood pressure drug and an antipsychotic medication, both of which prevent ejaculation during orgasm.
And it turns out that when it comes to grappling with hormonally-based contraceptive medication, female hormones may be critical in interfering with sperm’s ability to start a pregnancy. Belluck reports that a cocktail of the female hormone progestin and the male hormone testosterone may be among the first methods approved. The progestin tricks the brain into signaling the testes to stop producing testosterone, which in turn stops the production of sperm. Testosterone is added in the pill to avoid diminished libido and muscle loss, which can result when the hormone’s levels drop too low. So far, in early tests, the agent worked on 95% of the men who tried it, but there are lingering questions about the long-term effects of suppressing testosterone in men.
Such combinations of hormones are already widely used in several female contraceptives, however, such as patches and rings, which package progestin with another female hormone, estrogen. While the two methods work in different ways to inhibit fertilization, their side effects are surprisingly similar. Reports Belluck:
[Social worker Steve] Owens, [also 39] disliked testosterone gel, which was applied to his shoulders and required that his wife and daughter not touch him for hours to prevent exposure. “I don’t personally like rubbing things on me,” he said.
He believes it also made him overreact when he was stressed. “I don’t want to call them rages, because I’m a really mellow guy,” he said. “But I would go from zero to 60. Initially it was like, why am I acting like this?”
It’s still an open question how willing men will be to shouldering more of the burden of contraception. Owens, who has been involved in a number of trials, says that he talks about male contraception at parties and social events often. Not surprisingly, the reaction he gets among men is split: some are worried about long term effects and “shrinkage,” while others are open to the possibility.
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But it’s not time to throw away the tried and true methods yet: before men have the opportunity to try or pass on any new method of contraception, these options have to prove themselves in rigorous trials. But if Owens’ personal experience is any indication, even that validation may not be enough to convince some men that contraception is an equal opportunity responsibility.