• Leah Hess

Is it Finally Time for Male Brith Control?


Not-so-modern Contraception


Recently (and for much of modern history), contraceptives and the ethics surrounding them have been a large topic of conversation in politics and media. Currently, the long-term contraceptives on the market are targeted mostly towards women and people with female reproductive organs. These include hormonal birth control pills, hormonal arm implants, progestin shots, intrauterine devices, and vaginal rings. Each of these methods comes with its own laundry list of problems, including harsh hormonal side effects and lifestyle inconveniences. Non-invasive, non-hormonal birth control options are available in the form of shorter-term options like condoms and abstinence. However, the efficacy of condoms depends on use and are often avoided by many because of the discomfort or annoyance associated with them. Abstinence (the choice to refrain from sexual intercourse), although effective, is not a realistic prescription for many sexually active adults. Given this information, women are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of each method, and almost surely end up with a method that is imperfect. Should I risk weight fluctuations, hormonal acne flare-ups, ovarian cysts, migraines, blood clotting, and high blood pressure in exchange for a reduced risk of pregnancy? Or should I bypass these side effects in exchange for the stress that comes with reduced efficacy in preventing pregnancy? For too long women have been burdened with these questions. Some researchers are saying that it may be time for men to share the responsibility.


Until now, one of the few long-term contraceptive options for use on those with male reproductive organs was a vasectomy, a procedure also known as “male sterilization”. This more permanent (although often reversible) option is great for those who don’t want or are done having children, but is not often used by those who wish to start a family later in life. However, new studies are hinting at the possibility of safe and long-lasting birth control options for men.


‘The Pill’ for Men


A 2018 study in the Journal of Critical Endocrinology and Metabolism evaluated a prototypical male birth control pill called Dimethandrolone Undecanoate. The chemical dimethandrolone has the potential to reduce androgenic and progestational activity. When taken orally in small doses, it reversibly suppressed the production of the sex hormones testosterone and LH (luteinizing hormone). These bodily functions are parts of the mechanism behind sperm activity. When suppressed, they reduce the chances of egg fertilization. It was well tolerated and generated no significant adverse side effects among participants. This is promising for use as an oral contraceptive, but more analysis would need to be conducted into the minor side effects experienced by some participants (acne, headaches, mild erectile dysfunction, tiredness, and mild weight gain) and the effect of the drug on sperm count.


Magnetic Hypothermia


A recent study in ACS' Nano Letters reveals success in an experiment involving the use of magnets to target the testes to reduce the likelihood of conception. This experiment, performed on male mice, worked via the intravenous administration of iron oxide nanorods. The nanorods cause targeted hypothermia (cooling) of the testes, which in turn reduces the efficacy of their sperm cells. The effects lasted for approximately 30-60 days and luckily, did not result in harmful or permanent effects on fertility. This method, although not ready for human use, would be completely unique in its ability to cause very few symptoms, yet function long term.


Societal Attitudes


Proponents of male birth control say that it is about time; the disparity between the availability of female and male contraceptive methods forces women to assume the financial and health-related burdens associated with it while reducing men’s reproductive autonomy. This attitude has led to pushback from those who believe in the tradition that women should bear reproductive responsibility. Unfortunately, there is no promise that these societal attitudes and expectations will evolve with science. That is to say, gender roles will likely retain their place in the contraceptive discussion. A survey in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care highlighted this fact. Although men largely said they would be interested in a male birth control pill, over 70% of those questioned indicated that they would not tolerate any possible side effects. Although the consideration of potential side effects is understandable, it is still a double standard. When discussing this topic, there is also a tendency among opinion columnists and social media users to expect women to show distrust in male birth control, claiming that they would not be able to rely on their partners to responsibly take the pill. This has not been found to be true. According to researcher Anna Glasier, most women would trust their male partner to use a hormonal method. This statistic was higher for those in a stable sexual relationship as opposed to a casual relationship or no relationship.


Regardless, more research is needed to secure a safe, effective, and reversible method of male contraception. Scientists are optimistic but agree that it is likely still several years away. Until then, it is recommended that those seeking family planning and contraceptive services seek advice from medical professionals who can help them best evaluate their options and potential side effects.

 

Speaking Plainly:

  • As contraceptive research develops, women’s rights activists and scientists alike are turning their attention towards the prospect of long-term reversible male contraception options.

  • Although the research is ongoing, current prospects include targeted hypothermia in the testes via magnetic nanorods and a pill containing the chemical dimethandrolone.

  • Societal attitudes about gender roles will inevitably affect the outcome of these options, as women have long been the bearer of responsibility in regards to birth control.