By Elizabeth Limbach
Nearly half a century after the birth control pill became available to women, researchers say a male contraceptive is nearing release.
Currently men can chose between condoms, vasectomies, and trusting their partner to be using contraception. Elaine Lissner, director of the Male Contraception Information Project, believes that today’s men are ready and willing to share reproductive responsibilities.
"Vasectomy is permanent, and condoms are not foolproof," Lissner said. "A reversible, reliable, long-term method would meet a big need."
Lissner’s non-profit organization is one of the many groups working toward allowing men to control their reproductive destinies.
"We used to talk about men sharing the burden of contraception, but these days, many men talk about wanting control," Lissner said.
According to Dr. John Amory, associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington, men already take an active role in one-third of contraceptive use (including the use of condoms or "pulling out"). This statistic, coupled with his own survey results showing that 75 percent of men are interested in using hormonal birth control, gives Amory faith that male birth control will be a success when finally released.
Still, even leading researchers like Amory cannot tell how soon this release will be. Obstacles such as limited funding and long-standing cultural beliefs that birth control is a woman’s responsibility, are among the reasons that male contraception is arriving so many years later than its female counterpart. Amory also blames the difficulty in trying to control thousands of sperm per minute versus just [one to] two eggs per month.
"We are fighting an uphill battle," Amory said, "But I would not work in the field if I did not think we could get a contraceptive out in five to ten years."
Across the globe researchers are creating, testing and perfecting different methods of hormonal and non-hormonal male contraception. Hormonal techniques would affect the entire body, whereas non-hormonal methods are being developed to affect only sperm. According to Amory, however, "non-hormonal methods are lagging well behind in clinical development."
Amory works with hormonal methods that would use testosterone as a contraceptive, much like estrogen and progesterone are used in the female birth control pill. Doses of testosterone in men would lower or diminish their sperm count by blocking the release of other sperm-producing hormones from the pituitary gland. Because controlling testosterone alone is not entirely effective, combinations with other hormones are being tested. Amory divulged that the most promising form of male contraception is a progestrone/testosterone combination currently in development. The highly anticipated methods include oral contraception, injections and small rod implants.
Because of the numerous side effects the hormonal birth control has on women, some say non-hormonal approaches to male birth control are proving more desirable. Amory, however, sees the hormonal effects as possible selling points for some patients.
"My hope is to come up with a male contraceptive that wouldn’t have any significant downside but would also reduce the possibility of prostate cancer and maybe male pattern baldness not unlike how the female pill can prevent cervical cancers, acne, and painful periods," Amory said.
Despite progress and imminent release, many issues still surround male birth control. While researchers like Amory and Lissner believe men are more than ready for the responsibility, others worry that men will be resistant or uninterested.
Diane Lamotte, a pharmacist at UC Santa Cruz, says that although male birth control is an important step toward gender equality, she is skeptical about the efficiency of the new contraception.
"We are not quite there yet," Lamotte said. "As an enlightened nation, we are closer. But men don’t use condoms regularly, so it begs the question ‘Would they use something like birth control even if it is cheap or easy?’"
However, many researchers disagree. Amory noted that before the advent of hormonal contraception for women, men were primarily responsible through available means like condoms and withdrawal.
"It was only in the ’60s that women became the main contraceptors in a relationship, but men were for much of history," Amory said. "If we had a reversible male contraception most men would use it."
Jack Wilson, a third-year student at UCSC, had not previously known about male birth control development, but said he would gladly share this responsibility with his girlfriend of three years.
"I think guys in relationships are ready for this, and maybe eventually single men," Wilson said. "This progress reiterates the point that it takes two people to have a child."