For years now, the question as to why there is no contraceptive pill available to men has been unanswered. Now, Dundee University is the latest organisation attempting to give us an answer. Researchers at the university have already begun work on finding a drug to stimulate male infertility, although it is estimated that it will take about five years before the pill is able to be tested and much longer before it will be available in pharmacies.
Currently, there is an imbalance in the number of contraceptive options available for men and women. After a quick internet search, I realised just how drastic the difference is.
The options available for women include a contraceptive implant, an intrauterine device (IUD), an intrauterine system (IUS), a contraceptive injection, sterilisation, a contraceptive patch, a contraceptive vaginal ring, the combined pill, the progestogen-only pill, a female condom, a contraceptive diaphragm or cap, and the “fertility awareness” method.
The options currently available for men are limited to the male condom or a vasectomy.
With condoms averaging at just an 83% success rate and a vasectomy being a permanent and invasive procedure, it seems men are at a disadvantage when it comes to protecting themselves and their partners from an unwanted pregnancy. And as a result, women are often left with the burden of taking regular contraceptive methods.
Christopher Barratt, Professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Dundee, notes the lack of development in male birth control. He said that, “if you look back at the principles of male contraception then the last development was in 1450 BC, which is effectively the development of the condom.”
In addition to the pill, a male contraceptive gel is also being developed. The research is looking very positive. 450 couples will be using the gel for the next 12 months as their sole form of contraceptive. This is a big test, but it’s looking optimistic. One man taking part in the study has noticed a change in the way people around him speak about contraception.
He said: “my friends and colleagues at work have been coming up to me and asking about it, asking when it’s available, asking all sorts of stuff. I’m feeling very, very positive that either this contraceptive or other contraceptives for men will become available.”
However, a consultant in reproductive medicine at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Cheryl Fitzgerald, has warned that it will be at least ten years before the gel is ready to be used. So perhaps the pill might still come first. Either way, it’s clear that we’re moving in the right direction towards developing more male contraceptive options.
Dundee University is not the first organisation attempting to create a male contraceptive pill. A 2016 study testing out a male pill had to be cut short after the side effects of ‘acne and mood disorders’ proved too severe for participants to continue. But I’d argue that side effects are also an issue of the female pill. Taking the female contraceptive pill might give you symptoms such as acne, mood swings, anxiety, weight gain, nausea, headaches, reduced libido, and blood clots.
Pharmaceutical companies have previously resisted new findings in male contraception out of concern that the side effects of such pills would make them unsuccessful if placed on the market. But the side effects are similar to those of the female pill, which was made available on the NHS in 1961, almost 60 years ago. Perhaps the worry of pregnancy, which so directly affects the woman, was seen as enough incentive for women to endure the consequences of such side effects.
Dundee University is aiming to find a pill where no such side effects exist. If they are successful, perhaps we will move to a society where men are able to take more personal responsibility for contraception.
Kristina Saunders, a sociologist at the University of Glasgow, expressed concern about the male pill’s ability to be incorporated into society. She claims that, “much deeper work needs to be done.” Gender norms and roles within our society are deeply ingrained. Will our attitudes to contraception really change as soon as the male pill is introduced? The contraceptive pill is so intertwined with ideas of female sexuality; for some women, it’s become a simple part of their everyday lives. Whether many men will decide to take the new pill—immediately, at least—is still uncertain. It might take years before our routines begin to change.
Dundee University has been given a grant of £716,670 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The investment was made after Bill and Melinda Gates saw a gap in the market for a male contraceptive to be made available to the public.
A male pill being publicly available, and likely free on the NHS (contraception is free from prescription charges), would radically change the contraceptive industry. If proven effective, it might balance the gender disparity in contraceptive responsibilities. It would also enable couples to take equal responsibility for protecting themselves against pregnancies, and better protect men interested in short term or one-off sexual partners from accidentally impregnating someone and potentially having to become a parent.
The creation of effective male birth control can only be a progressive and empowering breakthrough, allowing men to take charge of their reproductive status and taking some of the pressure off women.