In the 50 years since the birth control pill first went on the market, women have enjoyed an unprecedented level of reproductive autonomy. As revolutionary as the pill has been for women’s personal and professional lives, it’s still somewhat retrograde in one crucial respect. For married couples and others who’ve long since ditched condoms, the pill and other common types of birth control place the burden of preventing pregnancy solely on the woman. It’s the lady who must endure the side effects of all those excess hormones coursing through her body, make doctor’s appointments, and pay for all those pills, patches, or rings. But those days may soon be over.
According to the New York Times, male contraceptives are now attracting the attention of scientists and drug-makers. So far, the most promising methods use testosterone and progestin hormones to block sperm production and can be administered in the form of a gel, patch, injection, pill, or implant. But there are other, more intriguing options coming down the research pipeline. There’s an anticancer agent that interferes with sperm maturation, a quick ultrasound treatment that heats up the testes and stops sperm production for months at a time, and a drug that screws with the calcium ion channels that give sperm the ability to swim. Experts believe we’re less than 10 years away from having a safe and effective male hormonal contraceptive on the market, most likely in the form of an injection or Norplant-like implant.
As the positive results come pouring in, it’s hard to believe it’s taken this long. As with many neglected areas of medical research, it all comes down to funding and bias. According to professor Nelly Oudshoorn’s The Male Pill, the stereotypical idea that family planning was a woman’s problem and that men were irresponsible and uninterested held sway and prevented progress in the field. “Family planners ignored men as consumers; drug companies were reluctant to invest in projects that appeared to have little profit; and researchers were discouraged from entering the field because of a lack of interest and funding.” Unfortunately, these stereotypes persist. Even now, women’s organizations must take the lead in convincing scientists and drug-makers to study male contraception.
That’s because many people find the idea of a man willing to take birth control preposterous. But according to studies by the World Health Organization, men across the globe would overwhelmingly welcome the opportunity to take an oral contraceptive and maintain greater control over family planning. In fact, the WHO has had no difficulty recruiting volunteers to its male contraception studies. While some of this enthusiasm is rooted in the sexist belief that women routinely sabotage their birth control to manipulate men, it’s still a powerful message to researchers and pharmaceutical companies that there exists a robust market for the male pill. Just think of the commercials.