The slow development of hormonal birth control for men
By Rachel Konkler
If you’re looking for a fun roll in the hay but are trying to avoid pregnancy, there’s a long list of contraceptive options. And despite the range of options, it’s interesting that hormonal contraceptive methods, from the pill to monthly injections, are all tied down by the same problem: They are meant only for women. But women aren’t the only ones responsible for reproduction, so why don’t men have better options?
Thanks to modern science, men may soon have access to their own form of birth control, including either daily pills or once-a-month injections. The development of these birth control methods could change the world of contraception, greatly increasing protection against pregnancies and allowing women to deflect this responsibility. The idea of a birth control pill or shot could also greatly appeal to men, some of whom complain about traditional contraceptive methods.
According to MSNBC News, scientists expect that male birth control could be available in the next five to seven years. Dr. Diana Blithe, program director of male birth control development for the National Institute of Health, said we may even be able to expect it sooner. “It can work, and it does work,” she said. “Efficacy has been proven.”
Male birth control pills and injections use progestin, an artificial hormone, to halt testosterone production, thus lessening sperm count. The level of sperm essentially renders a man temporarily infertile, but these effects are reversible once he stops taking the birth control.
Without this adequate level of testosterone, men could struggle with impotence, the loss of muscle mass and, potentially, hot flashes. In order to prevent these problems, additional testosterone must be put back into the body.
Testosterone gels, such as Androgel, are already on the market. They are applied to the skin, usually on the arms. In the past, the lack of a testosterone replacement was a setback in the development of male birth control because testosterone cannot be taken orally, as it is destroyed by the liver. By focusing on transdermal gels, researchers are getting closer to a marketable product.
Birth control injections function on a monthly cycle, while the pill works for 24 hours. Men taking the pill would take it every day at the same time.
In research trials, subjects are either given the injection or the pill to test effectiveness and side effects. In China, researchers injected testosterone undecanoate in tea seed oil into subjects once a month. Tests have shown a rate of 95 percent effectiveness for preventing pregnancy, and researchers are working to raise this rate to 99 percent.
Blithe says the current results of 95 percent effectiveness in trials will not be a problem—it is simply a matter of adjusting dosages to get greater effectiveness.
Another concern found in trials is the uncertainty of when a male on birth control has stopped producing sperm. According to ABC News, men starting hormonal birth control will have to wait up to three months for all sperm to leave the body. Despite this issue, tests like Sperm Check can assess sperm levels and notify a man when his body has stopped producing sperm, much like at-home pregnancy tests for females.
There is also concern that the testosterone decrease could work too well, potentially causing some men to become sterile.
Compared to other forms of male contraception, the pill or injections have many advantages. Men often describe a lack of sensation while wearing a condom, and condoms also pose the risk of breaking. Vasectomies, meanwhile, require surgery and are irreversible.
Effective hormonal male birth control has been proven to work, and there is a clear societal interest in such a product—so what’s the hold up?
“If a company wanted to try to put a male birth control on the market, they could do it,” Blithe said.
A company just needs to step up to get the product approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Three major pharmaceutical companies—Wyeth, of the United States, as well as companies in the Netherlands and Germany—took interest in marketing male birth control at one point, but, according to Blithe, “decided to put investments in another direction.”
Companies are concerned with profit, and because birth control is not as expensive as other medications, they have chosen not to invest. They also fear liability when taking on a new product.
“It’s not that it doesn’t work or it’s not available,” Blithe said. “It’s that companies don’t want to take on the responsibility.”
Elaine Lissner, director of the Male Contraception Information Project, is taking a stand to get male birth control on the market as soon as possible. MCIP believes RISUG, a non-hormonal drug, is the best method of male birth control. RISUG is a polymer gel injected into the body that blocks the sperm duct and also kills any sperm that may get through. It lasts for about 10 to 15 years and can be reversed by flushing out the system with a sodium bicarbonate solution.
Lissner said she sees benefits for both genders, so the public needs to push harder to get new male birth control on the market. Right now, she said, “Women are mostly tolerating whatever they think is least bad, and men have a lot of responsibility but no rights. It’s time for some rights to go along with that responsibility.”
Rachel Konkler is a freshman exploratory student who thinks it’s time for men to become pill poppers, too. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.