For decades, the burden of birth control has primarily fallen on women. The reason is clear: women have more to lose and face more health risks when they become pregnant. But many men still want a safe and effective contraceptive option that gives them more control over their reproductive life, one that gives them the option of not using a condom. Fortunately, many scientists are looking into that possibility right now. But, why hasn’t it been available?
Testing Out Male Contraceptive Options
Over the years, several attempts have been made to develop a male birth control pill. Unfortunately, none have been successful so far. Some have gotten close, however, including one called dimethandrolone undecanoate developed by a team at the University of Washington. Taken daily in pill form, dimethandrolone undecanoate seemed like a complement to the women’s birth control pill — that is, until some of the men in the trial started to complain about a particular side effect, weight gain.
This instance wouldn’t be the first time that an otherwise promising pill was sidelined due to the development of certain side effects. In a trial commissioned by the World Health Organization, an injectable form of male birth control was developed and tested. The men participating received a shot every eight weeks. The injections were effective in reducing sperm counts as a way to help reduce the risk of pregnancy, and when they stopped getting the shots, their fertility returned to normal levels.
But the men started dropping out of the trial. Why? They complained about the side effects, including mood swings, acne, and pain at the injection site. One man developed severe depression, and another participant attempted to commit suicide.
The trial was cut short. Men would have to continue waiting if they wanted a convenient form of birth control that rivaled the options available to women.
The Issues With Side Effects
Looking back at these studies, it’s striking how familiar many of the side effects sound to women. Weight gain, acne, and mood swings are some of the most common birth control side effects associated with contraceptives for women, especially those that contain hormones.
In short, these men started to experience some of the side effects that many women experience every day as a result of using birth control.
These side effects for men came as a huge blow to women. After all, if they have been dealing with these side effects for years, why can’t men handle them, too? As it turns out, part of the answer has to do with the risks women take when they don’t use birth control.
As NPR science correspondent Rob Stein explained, “There’s a little bit of a different risk-benefit analysis when it comes to men using a contraceptive. When women use a contraceptive, they’re balancing the risks of the drug against the risks of getting pregnant. And pregnancy itself carries risks. But these are healthy men — they’re not going to suffer any risks if they get somebody else pregnant.”
The Future of Male Contraceptives
While it’s disappointing that the WHO trial was shelved, the initial results are quite promising. The injections were effective in reducing the rate of pregnancy, and most of the men who didn’t drop out of the trial said that they’d continue using the drug if it became available.
Pills and injectables have both delivered encouraging results, but they haven’t been perfected yet. The use of hormones seems to be effective at reducing sperm count as a method for preventing pregnancy. Researchers may try different hormone levels and hormone types to find the mix that produces the best results with the fewest side effects. Other hormone delivery methods may be developed as well such as implants or gels. Scientists are also exploring ways to make the sperm weaker so that they are less likely to reach the egg for fertilization.
One option currently being explored for male birth control is nonsurgical vasectomy, which involves injecting a polymer gel into the vas deferens to block the sperm rather than cutting it. This procedure would be far easier to reverse than a traditional vasectomy.
Benefits of Male Birth Control
Men have much to gain from access to reliable, safe male contraceptives. It’s empowering to be able to make your own choices about your sexual and reproductive health, including when to become a parent or add to your family.
Male contraceptive options would also be a great option for heterosexual couples in which the woman is unable to take birth control due to certain health risks.
How Men Can Step Up
One of the most significant ways men can contribute to the development of male contraceptives is participating in research trials. This is an extremely useful way to help even the playing field for men and women when it comes to pregnancy prevention.
A guy who can’t participate in trials can use condoms or contribute to the costs of his partner’s birth control methods. Men who do not plan to have any additional children or who wish not to have children can look into getting a vasectomy.
If you or your partner is currently in need of birth control, consider using Nurx. With low-cost, convenient health care options, this app can help to reduce the birth control burden for women.
Nurx is a free platform offering easy online access to doctors and seamless delivery of medications. No more time-consuming trips to the clinic and no more frantic pharmacy runs. We put you in control of your own health, empowering you to get the care you need, when you need it. Starting with birth control and PrEP for HIV prevention, Nurx is available in 21 states and counting. From diagnosis to delivery of prescriptions, we make every part of getting healthy and staying healthy, better.
For more information and to sign up, visit www.nurx.com and follow us @nurxapp on Twitter and Instagram.