Shifting Responsibility

By | March 6th, 2014 | Issues, Magazine, Sex, Upfront

A look into the development of male hormonal contraception

Condoms, and vasectomies and abstinence! Oh, my!

By and large these have been the only three birth control options for men. Condoms break, abstinence is hard and vasectomies are too much of a commitment. Thus, the majority of the birth control responsibility has fallen on women in the form of remembering to take that faithful birth control pill every day. But what about men?

Australian scientists have been working on creating a male equivalent of the female birth control pill. In a 2013 study done at Monash University in Australia, researchers used mice to trial-run the male birth control formula. In all studies the formula was successful.

The trial worked by attempting to block the transporters of sperm instead of the production. Other attempted trials in the past have attempted to block the production of sperm but this caused a laundry list of side effects, including decreased male fertility and libido. Dr. Christina Wang, associate director UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute, noted that researchers are still not sure about the long term side effects of these pills.

According to Sab Ventura, professor and researcher at Monash University, most past attempts have been hormonal or aimed at germ line strategies, and the same adverse side effects have been a result of that approach (i.e. decreased fertility and sex drive in men).

“It is much easier to stop one egg per month in a female than it is to stop every one of the 1000 or so sperm produced by men every second,” Ventura said. “Our strategy does not affect hormonal systems or the germ line development of sperm so it would not have these effects.”

The approach by Monash University researchers works by not only stopping the sperm transport, but by moving the sperm to a different location at the time of ejaculation. Ventura noted that this does not mean a lack of ejaculation during sexual activity — that would be unhealthy and cause harmful backup—but rather ejaculation of fluid with no sperm present in the semen.

“In our mouse study, mice still reached the point of ejaculation but no female mates became pregnant,” Ventura said.

Male birth control pills would be equally as effective as the birth control pills on the market for women, said Ventura, and there would be no waiting period after coming off the pill for male sperm to become fertile again.

Male birth control pills would make the responsibility of birth control an equal playing field as women would no longer be the only ones with this option available. But would men want to take this step? According to Elaine Lissner, director of the Male Contraception Information Project, men are not shying away from this responsibility.

“We used to talk about men ‘sharing the burden’ of contraception — but these days, many men talk about wanting control,” Lissner said. “Men want to control their own destinies.”

Male birth control pills are not only a great development for all safe-sex participants in developed countries, but have important implications for less-developed countries.
“In wealthier countries, a new contraceptive would improve the quality of life,” Lissner said. “But in developing countries, an affordable, reliable contraceptive would actually save lives.”

By distributing a low-cost and long-lasting form of contraception, male birth control pills present an opportunity to prevent deaths by child-birth that are a direct result of the frequency with which they are getting pregnant.

“In many countries, one in eight or nine women dies in childbirth,” noted Lissner. “We know that birth spacing could keep many of those women alive.”

It is still unclear as to whether this distribution of male birth control would be effective. If we have yet to distribute female birth control there is not real solid evidence that the opposite would work. However, it is a hopeful idea and adds further to the appeal of creating a viable male birth control pill.
So, where is this magic pill and where can you or your boyfriend get one?

Unfortunately, the market sale and development of these birth control pills will take at least another decade.

“Our strategy would need chemicals to be developed that block two proteins involved in sperm transport.  There is currently a drug on the market, which blocks one of these proteins and has been shown to work safely and effectively over a long period of time.  So, we only need to develop one new medicine,” Ventura said. “Nevertheless, development of a new medicine from scratch would take around ten years if it were well funded and everything went smoothly.”

Until that fateful funding comes, men and women alike will be stuck dreaming of the day that condoms, vasectomies and abstinence are not the only birth control solutions.

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Sabrina Dorronsoro is a junior journalism major who thinks its more effective to unload a gun than to wear a bulletproof vest. Email her at sdorron1@ithaca.edu.

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