Male Birth Control: Almost a Solution
With penetrative sex comes the possibility of pregnancy, a risk that in theory should be shared by both parties. However, because women* are the child-bearing sex, they are often the ones carrying the burden and responsibility for any failures in birth control.
Women have had the technology available for different forms of birth control since the 1960s, when the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive. The most common form of birth control is hormonal, with the pill and IUDs being two of the most used types in that group. Because of the relative accessibility of female contraception, the responsibility for contraception—outside of barrier methods—has often been left to women.
For centuries, men have been very limited on their birth control options. Birth control testing was originally meant to target men, however it was rejected due to the number of side effects and the unwillingness of men to go through the trial. According to Broadly writer Bethy Squires, “it was believed women would tolerate side effects better than men, who demanded a better quality of life.” This decrease in willing participants lead companies to look abroad and coerce women from Puerto Rico to participate in their trials without any knowledge of the possible side effects of the contraception. The pill was, at the time, a much higher hormonal dosage than is required to prevent pregnancy and created unacceptable, and sometimes dangerous, side effects for 17% of women; three women died, though they were never autopsied to avoid possible confirmation of the dangerous nature of the pill. Not only was the responsibility for birth control directed away from men and placed on women, but it was predicated on the exploitation of women of color.
Male options for birth control generally include withdrawal, wearing a condom or sterilization. However, researchers have developed a new technology that might help men contribute to the responsibility of birth control.
The male contraceptive shot works by suppressing the sperm that is released during ejaculation. The shot, which is administered every eight weeks, is a mixture of the synthetic form of testosterone, the male sex hormone, and a smaller dose of norethisterone enanthate, a combination of the female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. This surge of hormones tells the male brain that it is producing enough of its own hormones, and therefore shuts down the production of testosterone. When the testicles stop the production of testosterone, it in effect shuts down the production of sperm.
This method has a 2.18% failure rate, compared to about 1% for female IUDs, 9% for birth control pills and 18% for condoms, according to the Center for Women’s Health. For over 40 years researchers have known this kind of technology was within reach for men, however the development into commercial use was stalled.
More than 75% of the men studied reported being at least satisfied with the contraceptive method and willing to use this method if available, supporting pleas to get this product into circulation. However, the study was terminated early due to side effects reported by many of the male participants. 20 participants, out of the original 320, dropped out of the study prior to its termination because of side effects.
The most concerning side effects for researchers were the mood swings associated with hormonal contraception, particularly the risk of depression. This side effect has been studied in female birth control for years. In fact, one study found that there was a relative increase in rates of depression among adolescents and young women who went on the birth control pill. As explained by NPR, this translates to about “0.5 percent of women who began hormonal contraception developed depression who might not have otherwise.” When compared to the 2.8% of men who developed depression over the course of the male contraceptive study, the risk posed by the contraceptive shot becomes much more apparent. Over half the men in the study also reported getting acne after they started the birth control—a marked change compared to women who experience a reduction in acne 70% of the time.
Another side effect seen with this male contraception is the effect on fertility after men stopped using the contraceptive. Although most men returned to normal levels of fertility after a 12 week recovery period, a small percentage took over a year to fully regain fertility and one participant has yet to return to normal fertility—four years after the completion his trial.
Although these side effects are concerning, it is important to note that the side effects women face with their hormonal birth control can have high risks as well. Blood clots are the most common of the fatal side effects for women on the birth control pill. Other side effects, such as nausea and breast tenderness, can also occur when women are on hormonal birth control. Women’s IUDs also have side effects, such as acne and mood swings.
At the end of the day more research needs to be put into forms of birth control for all genders so that responsible family planning does not threaten the livelihood of younger populations and is equally shared between all partners. If hormonal birth control can be fine tuned to account for negative health effects, so too can the male contraceptive shot. A balance between efficacy and safety needs to be found; reproductive health must be equal for all.
*Here at Moda, we recognize that not all women have uteri and that some men have the ability to get pregnant—some people with uteri don’t identify as either of these genders. We love our trans brothers and sisters, as well as our GNC community! Please note that when we use the terms “women” and “men” here, it is to offer commentary on the cishet-normative gender oppression related to reproduction, not to exclude anyone from the experience of womanhood or manhood.
Cover photo courtesy of thoughtcatalog.com.