Male birth control is crucial for reproductive equality and family planning. Here are some technologies that can help couples share the responsibility of contraception.
Despite significant strides in gender equality, the onus of preventing pregnancy disproportionately falls on women. As such, women have long relied on various birth control technologies, including contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and vaginal gels to minimize the chances of unwanted pregnancies. In direct contrast to this, there have historically been only two types of male contraceptive methods—condoms and vasectomy. But this may soon change, as male birth control pills are currently in development.
According to a paper published in the scientific journal Nature Communications in February this year, researchers are testing a compound that stops sperm from swimming, thereby acting as a temporary form of contraception in men. While this is promising news, the pressing question is: Why is male birth control lagging so far behind that of women? Let’s find out.
Advancement in male birth control
Although the research mentioned above has made splashes in the news recently, it isn’t the first of its kind. Here are some of the methods of reversible male contraception that have been worked on fairly recently:
This is an oral contraceptive developed by the University of Washington in 2018. The pill is used to combine the activity of the male hormones with progestin (a synthetic version of the naturally occurring female hormone progesterone). In a study conducted on 100 healthy men between the ages of 18-50, it was found that 400 mg of the drug resulted in a reduction in the production of testosterone and two other hormones required for sperm production.
Developed in 2017, Vasalgel is a male contraceptive gel designed as a less intrusive and non-permanent version of a vasectomy. As a part of the contraceptive treatment, the gel has to be injected into the vas deferens (the tube that carries sperm out of the testes). The gel then acts as a barrier preventing the sperm from being ejaculated. The effects of the gel can be reversed by an injection of sodium bicarbonate solution. While the gel shows great potential, clinical trials have yet to begin as of February 2023.
In 2017, researchers at the international non-profit Population Council created a reversible contraceptive gel for men. Unlike Vasalgel, this is a topical treatment (i.e. can be applied to a particular place on the body). All that a user would have to do is apply the gel to their shoulders for reduced sperm production. The gel sent progestin into the bloodstream which would suppress the creation of testosterone, and, in turn, the production of sperm in the body.
COSO ultrasound device
COSO is an ultrasound-based birth control device created by German scientist Rebecca Weiss. This device won Weiss the James Dyson design award in 2021. COSO requires the user to put their testicles inside a custom-fitted device filled with heated water before intercourse. Doing so would stop sperm mobility for a short period of time, thereby reducing the risk of pregnancy.
The reasons behind a lack of male birth control
One of the biggest challenges facing the development of male birth control is the biology of the male body. While women produce two eggs every month, men produce innumerable sperm every day. Testosterone levels affect sperm count, meaning that reducing testosterone production is necessary to reduce sperm count. However, this can adversely affect male libido and other functions that testosterone performs in the body, such as bones and muscle growth.
Besides, let’s say even if you stop the production of sperm without any side effects. Even after stopping sperm production, a man can impregnate someone for three whole months. Hence, stopping the production of sperm would take a fair bit of time before it becomes an effective and reliable means of birth control.
Fear of side effects
Another significant hurdle in the development of male birth control is the fear of potential side effects. Even though male contraceptives have been in the works since the 1970s, trials have been halted due to side effects such as weight gain, acne, liver damage and loss of sex drive. While female birth control also has side effects, such as nausea, bloating, increased blood pressure and even heart attacks/strokes, men may be less likely to tolerate them compared to the risk of accidental pregnancy. Thus, many dropped out before a pill could even be fully tested.
As of 2022, 76% of women in the U.S. have tried more than one type of birth control technology. Despite their efforts, nearly half the pregnancies in the world are unintended, which leaves a lot to be desired in the way of birth control technologies. While all of the male birth control technologies discussed above are not commonly available in the market, they represent the ever-evolving landscape of birth control options. So, coming back to the question of when we can expect access to male birth control, some experts suggest that it would likely be available by the next decade at the earliest.
Header image courtesy of Envato