A male birth control pill sounds like something that has more in common with unicorns and flying pigs than reality, but as it turn out, a slew of contraceptives for men are in the works.
Research teams around the country are in a race to develop a male contraceptive in the form of a birth control pill, topical gel, implant or injection. According to a recent report in The New York Times there are at least four contraceptive options for men currently in development. Some of these potential methods of birth control were discovered by accident—as a side effect of drugs created to treat other ailments.
Cases in point: The University of Washington is working on a drug originally intended to cure worm infections (gross, we know), but it inadvertently caused infertility. Columbia University Medical Center has picked up where Bristol-Meyers left off on a drug that was supposed to cure skin diseases but was found to be a testicular toxin. The University of Kansas Medical Center has already proposed a male birth control pill to the FDA called gamendazole derived from an anti-cancer drug. Understanding how these side effects curtail fertility is paving the way for a bunch of male birth control options.
Even though several of the potential male contraceptives were discovered by accident, John K. Amory, M.D., who is currently conducting research at the University of Washington, says there’s a great need for additional methods of birth control. He believes men are excited at the prospect of not having to rely on condoms or vasectomies.
Marriage and family therapist Rachel Sussman thinks that just as the Pill liberated women in the ‘60s, men may find a similar freedom in taking control of their reproductive power—and reducing the risk of finding themselves dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.
Sussman has heard the horror story all too often from her male patients and feels a major benefit would be: “They would never get that phone call, ‘Remember me? I’m your ex-girlfriend. Well, now we have a baby together.”
Some of the male contraceptive methods being tested work similarly to the Pill, using hormones to prevent pregnancy. “Mostly, the approaches tested in clinical trials in humans have been using hormones such as testosterone to suppress sperm production,” explains Dr. Armory. “This approach does lead to an increase in weight—more muscle than fat—and some increase in sex drive, but no obvious harmful effect on mood.”
But the bigger question is, will men actually try it?
For some guys, the social side effects—feeling like less of a man—may be hard to swallow. Happily married David*, 37, commented, “Be it laziness or an undercurrent of gender stereotyping, I would rather leave it to the woman.” Or as Dean, 42, simply puts it, “taking the pill, it looks a little like you don’t wear the pants.”
While some men are preoccupied with how popping a birth control pill will reflect on their masculinity, there are also women who worry about relying on a guy for pregnancy protection. Single gal Julie, 28, admits, “I would never trust a man with contraception I couldn't see,” while Andrea, 31, is concerned about her husband’s ability to handle the responsibility. “He can't even manage to take his allergy pill regularly,” she says. “So it's probably best that I've got this covered in our relationship.”
WATCH VIDEO: The Journey of a Pill
However, Paula England, Ph.D., a sociologist specializing in gender research at Stanford University, points out that the fear of relying on men for contraception “is analogous to the risk men now face in which a woman may say she is taking the Pill, but she really isn't, or isn't consistently. In a sense, each sex is at the mercy of the other.”
For men who are considering a vasectomy, popping a pill or receiving an injection may be a much more appealing option than surgery. New dad Brandon, 36, who is reviewing his options, said, “Let's face it, who'd rather have a procedure than take a pill?” Single Adam, 25, currently relies on condoms, but he would prefer an unbreakable alternative. While he is concerned that male birth control would lower his testosterone levels or that insurance companies would weasel out of coverage, he says, “If those two variables are favorable, then I can definitely see [male birth control] becoming extremely popular.”
But it will be years before men will have to decide whether to go on a male birth control pill or stick with tried-and-true methods like condoms or vasectomies. Although the buzz has already started to build, Dr. Amory thinks it will take five years or more before a male birth control option hits the market.
And then the contraception combat would begin culturally. Sussman thinks it would be an uphill battle reliant on a strong marketing campaign that went on for many, many, many years. “Then slowly, but surely, it would catch on,” she says. Although, Sussman also argues the future of birth control would still be in the hands of women. She encourages, “If women really joined together and told men they need to use birth control, that everyone needs to use birth control, I think it would be a great thing for society.”
*Names have been changed
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