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  • The Merge

Why a Male Birth Control Pill Is Taking So Long?

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Since the approval of the female contraceptive pill in 1960, the world of reproductive health has been revolutionized, largely affecting women's autonomy, economic stability, and overall health. Yet, over six decades later, male birth control or male contraceptive pill remains elusive, leaving only two common male contraceptive methods: condoms and vasectomy.


male-contraceptive-pill-took-so-long

Until now! Earlier this year, scientists think they've found a new way to offer contraception to men – and this time, they're going straight for the sperm.


So, what happens when a man takes birth control? Scientists say the male contraceptive pill blocks a fertility protein for 24 hours and could be more effective than women's daily birth control pills. These pills could hit the market in the next five years.

But finding effective male contraception has never been the issue. For decades, scientists have proposed several birth control drugs for men that never made it to the market.

But why is this the case? Why is developing a viable male birth control pill taking so long? To understand this complex issue better, let's delve into the history, biases, and current realities surrounding male contraceptives.


The History of Male Birth Control

Historically, the burden of contraceptive care in heterosexual relationships falls predominantly on female partners. The advent of female contraceptive methods, from intrauterine devices (IUDs) to contraceptive pills, patches, and rings, has reinforced this dynamic.

According to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14% of women aged 15–49 in the United States use oral birth control.


However, the lack of male equivalents is not for want of trying. As early as the 1970s, scientists began exploring the idea of male birth control, many of which made it to human trials.


The first clinical trials for male hormonal contraceptives hail back to the 1970s. These pills would make the orgasms for men' dry,' meaning no sperm would be ejaculated for them to fertilize women! Great solution? No. For a proportion of men, the so-called "clean sheets" pill was seen as emasculating. This study eventually lost funding, and the research had to be stopped.


The Biases Between Male and Female Contraception

Several male pills were rejected because of the effects of men taking birth control. These effects included mood swings and other side effects like acne and weight gain; sound familiar, ladies?


Susan Walker, an associate professor of contraception and reproductive health at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK says "There have been very successful trials of male hormonal contraceptive injections". She gives the example of the contraceptive injection, which was almost 100% effective in suppressing sperm concentrations. "That worked extremely well," says Walker. "But it was halted because of worries around side effects, like mood swings and skin changes – which those of us who work with female contraception weren't surprised about."


These symptoms are extremely common among women taking contraceptive pills, but they have been on the market for decades.


So why can't men have contraceptive pills with the same side effects women have tolerated for decades?


Are the reasons for delaying these pills more cultural than scientific?


Current Reality and Perception of Male Contraception

Data suggest that men are generally open to a male contraceptive pill.


Steve Kretschmer, founder and executive director of DesireLine, a health development consultancy firm, conducted a large survey with 15,678 men and 9,122 female partners from eight countries.


According to Kretschmer, this survey found that the "[d]emand for [novel] male [contraceptive technologies] is very high, with [the] form of administration, e.g., pill versus gel on the shoulder, etc. dominating what drives preference."

The development of male contraceptives has seen some progress, albeit slow.


Previously, two potential male contraceptives in the pipeline have shown promising results: a gel application that reduces sperm production (undergoing phase 2 trials) and a daily pill that inhibits hormones necessary for sperm production (still in early development).


Yet, we are still far from a market-ready, widely accepted male contraceptive pill.


In a much more recent study, scientists have identified a crucial gene responsible for sperm production. They have developed a drug that temporarily inhibits the gene responsible for sperm production, essentially making the sperm defunct.


Its developers, from Weill Cornell Medicine, said they are looking to create an "on-demand," nonhormonal oral contraceptive that can be taken half an hour before penetrative intercourse and be effective. The initial trials on mice have shown great results, and human trials are set to start in 2023. In the trials, the mice produced 28% less sperm and moved thrice slower.

They believe that their contraceptive candidate may come with few or no side effects and have no hormonal interference, thanks to the nature of the drug they are developing. The pill's effects will also be reversible, meaning once the pill is stopped, the sperm will work just like before.

The preliminary results have been promising, with lowered sperm counts and minimal side effects. However, long-term effects and full efficacy are still under investigation.


Why Does This Matter?

The importance of a viable male contraceptive pill extends beyond biological fairness. It is an opportunity to balance the responsibility of birth control in heterosexual relationships. It presents an avenue for men to share the physical burden, side effects, and costs of birth control.


Furthermore, it may help reduce unplanned pregnancies, contributing to global efforts to improve reproductive health and rights.


In conclusion, the absence of a male contraceptive pill is not merely a scientific hurdle but a cultural and societal challenge that needs to be addressed. Overcoming these challenges will usher in an era of greater reproductive equality and redefine norms and perceptions of contraceptive responsibility.


As the world continues to grapple with these issues, the vision of male birth control serving as a common, widely accepted reality remains a work in progress, with the potential to change our societal dynamics profoundly.

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