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News articles about the development of potential male contraceptives are commonplace, where big promises are made of “no side effects” and “100% effectiveness”. Invariably, though, the promised product fails to materialise, and the research in question is never mentioned again.
This year, two seemingly promising new prospective methods were announced; one in the form of an injection and the other a tablet. Impressively, the RISUG injection, developed by a scientist in India, promises to remain 100% effective for 10 years with absolutely no side effects. It is said to work by neutralising sperm with a positively-charged polymer injected into the scrotum directly. The last we heard of this injection was that it was entering the third phase of clinical trials in India.
The tablet, in contrast, would probably need to be taken daily in a similar way to the female oral contraceptive. It works to affect how the body responds to vitamin A, which in men is vital for sperm production. A study is said to have shown that a specific compound was able to make male mice temporarily sterile. Apparently, no side effects were demonstrated, though we should bear in mind that a lab mouse is unable to communicate that they have a headache. It seems that “no side effects” in this instance simply refers to the fact that the compound had no effect on the mating habits of the mice. This potential tablet was in the news in June, and has not appeared since.
As interesting as they may seem, these stories are essentially interchangeable from all the other male birth control promises that have been made by scientists over the last few decades. It seems like a new group of researchers claim to be oh-so-close to achieving the Holy Grail of birth control at least once a year.
But is it really the Holy Grail? Do people actually want birth control for men? According to the FPA, who commissioned a poll on this very topic in 2008, they do, with over a third of men saying they would use a hormonal contraceptive and over a quarter saying they were unsure if they would. Rebecca Findlay, Press & Campaigns Manager at the FPA, told us that there is “absolutely” a need for a contraceptive alternative to condoms for men, and a market for them, pointing out that “men deserve high-quality low-risk contraception just as much as women do.” In addition, the degree of choice and control that a new contraceptive would give men is “very important for [their] sexual health and male sexual empowerment”. This is an important point, as men currently have the option of either condoms or a vasectomy if they want to have control over their own fertility, while women have an entire range of hormonal and long-term contraceptive methods.
When news stories of potential male contraceptives are released, the enthusiasm of the potential discovery always seems to be tempered by quotes from sceptics, who claim that men either can’t be bothered to take birth control pills, or that women can’t trust them to do so. Cynics usually weigh in as well, pointing out that pharmaceutical companies don’t really want birth control options for men - especially not in the form of a cheap, one-off injection - because money-making in that area is limited. Whether you believe this is true or not will depend on your own levels of cynicism.
Conspiracy theories aside, the most important obstacle to producing the coveted ‘male pill’ is the simple fact that it is very difficult to temporarily but effectively neuter millions of sperm. For women, it is a relatively straightforward case of stopping ovulation and making the reproductive environment inhospitable, which is achieved by the right dosages of synthetic hormones. Scientists have been adjusting and perfecting this method for over 40 years, but the male equivalent has proved elusive time and time again.
Will the RISUG injection or the vitamin A pill prove to be the method that breaks this pattern? Maybe, but don’t throw away the condoms just yet.