The Ailing Male Pill
A male birth control pill certainly sounds like a good idea. But after 25 years and millions of dollars of research, there’s still no pill. We put a man on the moon faster than we’ve invented a male pill.
The question isn’t really whether it can be done, because it can. The production of sperm is linked to testosterone levels in the body. When testosterone levels are too high, the body stops producing sperm. Witness the testis shrinking (atrophy) that occurs with anabolic steroid use. Such pills have been tested, and are successful. One problem, though, is that the ability of hormone-based male pills to work perfectly (which they really need to do) varies with a man’s ethnicity. Works for some, but not all. This issue alone may prove fatal for the male hormone pill.
Besides this, there is a litany of concerns regarding the physical side effects of a hormone-based male pill. Immediate concerns have been a big issue in past trials- adult acne, weight gain, moodiness and the like. But what about possible long term effects? The female contraceptive pill has been linked with higher rates of heart disease and breast and liver cancer in women. Although not completely comforting, at least we know these issues in women. But little to no research has addressed similar issues with long term “pill” use in men.
Despite all of this, there is still a healthy interest in a male birth control pill. Studies have shown that men in committed relationships are more interested than single men in a pill– no surprise here. Single men are interested in using condoms for the added bonus of protection against STDs. A male birth control pill might also be a better contraceptive alternative for men who want more control over family planning than that offered by vasectomy. That said, there is still the eternal question of whether or not a pill would sell successfully– would women, in the end, trust their partners to be consistent and compliant in taking the pill? The answer to this question varies from couple to couple, but to get a sense of things, ask yourself how often you fail to take something as simple and uneventful as a daily multivitamin to get an idea of the magnitude of this problem.
There simply aren’t enough options for male contraception on the market today. The main ones are abstinence, rhythm method, withdrawal, condoms, and vasectomy. Given this lineup, there is certainly room for more, and more reliable, contraceptives for men. One thing seems reasonable clear: given the safety and effectiveness of vasectomy, and fact that daily compliance is not needed to keep it effective, anything new has to be this good or better. How about a truly reversible vasectomy? Or a long term, implantable hormonal device? In the end, these are likely to become tasty alternatives to a male pill.