Male pill hailed as new era for equality

Slow progress: Male hormonal contraceptives were first tested in 1957, but none have reached the shelves.

Would a male pill make relationships more equal? More than 50 years after the female pill launched, a game-changing new contraceptive for men is finally on the horizon.

“The male contraceptive has been five years away for the last 40 years.” So goes a popular joke among researchers.

While women can choose from pills, implants, coils and injections, for decades the only options available to men have been condoms, which fail 18% of the time, and vasectomies, which are often irreversible.

But change is coming. In March, a daily pill called DMAU, which halts sperm production by lowering testosterone levels, was found to be effective in a trial of 100 men.

Crucially, it also had hardly any side effects. A 2016 trial of a contraceptive injection for men was stopped after patients suffered side effects including acne, mood swings and low libido, despite it being effective at preventing pregnancy.

The decision sparked an outcry from women who argued they have tolerated similar side effects from the pill for decades. The medication can raise a woman’s risk of depression by 23% and increase the risk of developing blood clots.

“Absorbing pain is expected of us,” argues Angela Saini, a science journalist.

But the benefits of birth control cannot be understated. Before the pill, women, trapped by their bodies, were often forced to marry young and were expected to stay at home to mind the children.

After it became available on the NHS in 1961, women gained the freedom to delay motherhood, pursue a career and enjoy sex without fear. Couples cohabited, freed from the pressure to marry. Now, 70% of all British women have used the pill at some point in their lives.

“[It was] the most important thing in the latter half of the century,” declared medical expert Dame Valerie Beral.

But the quest for effective contraception was a long and winding road. The first condoms, used by Casanova himself, were made from pig’s intestine and date back to 1642. In the 1700s, lemons were used as a diaphragm, and as late as the 1960s, women used Coca-Cola as a contraceptive.

The pill changed everything. And now, with birth control for men on the horizon, we could be on the cusp of a new revolution.

Would a male pill make relationships more equal?

It takes two to tango

Of course, say some. Women have shouldered the burden of contraception alone for decades. Men often have little understanding of the hormonal side effects and responsibility, so a male pill would help them empathise with their partners, and change society’s view of contraception and pregnancy as a “women’s issue”.

Not quite, argue others. In a recent poll, 58% of women surveyed said they wouldn’t trust their male partner to take the pill, and with good reason. At the end of the day, a man will never face the responsibility of carrying a child through pregnancy, so he can’t be entrusted with preventing it.

You Decide

  1. How would relationships change if men could take a contraceptive pill?
  2. Should research for male birth control be a priority?

Activities

  1. The two most popular female contraceptives are the pill and the IUD. Research both of them and make a list of three pros and cons for each.
  2. Imagine you are living in the year 2100 and male birth control is widely available. Write a one-page essay on the impact, or lack of impact, it has had on gender equality.

Some People Say...

“Birth control is the first important step woman must take […] to be man’s equal.”

Margaret Sanger

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
While hormonal contraceptives are effective against pregnancy, only condoms protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). STDs are rising as result of less condom use. Cases of syphilis grew by 20% between 2016 and 2017. Gonorrhoea cases have also risen sharply and doctors warn it is one of several infections that is becoming harder to treat as it resists antibiotics.
What do we not know?
Whether male birth control will be available in the coming decades. Contraception for women is reportedly simpler because it only needs to block one egg and can mimic monthly hormone cycles, whereas male birth control needs to stop millions of sperm which are being constantly produced by the male body.

Word Watch

18%
This is calculated to include people who use condoms incorrectly. They have a 2% failure rate with correct use.
Vasectomies
A surgical procedure, during which the tubes that carry a man’s sperm are cut and sealed to permanently prevent fertilisation.
Blood clots
The combined oral contraceptive pill has been linked to an increased risk of blood clots in the veins, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Casanova
An 18th-century Italian adventurer who was famed for his written accounts of his many love affairs. His name is now used as a byword for a promiscuous lover.
Diaphragm
A barrier method of birth control in the form of a cup-shaped object that is inserted into the vagina before intercourse to prevent fertilisation. The use of lemons was dangerous and unhygienic.
Coca-Cola
It was widely, and incorrectly, rumoured that the acidity of the soft drink killed sperm.

Subjects

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