For years, the burden of birth control has fallen predominantly on women due to the extremely limited forms of contraception available for men. After many failed attempts to expand these options, scientists in the US have developed a male birth control that is 99% effective in mice with no clear side effects, which could reach human trials by the end of this year. This marks profound progress in splitting the burden of birth control more equally. However, the focus of these studies underline some very clear issues when it comes to womens’ contraception.
The American Chemical Society presented these findings, introducing a non-hormonal male contraceptive pill. Previously, when the male sex hormone, testoterone, was targeted, side effects such as weight gain, depression, and low-density cholesterol levels were identified. Therefore, creating a non-hormonal pill is designed to avoid these side effects, which have prevented the male contraceptive pill from becoming marketable. This pill works through targeting the protein, Retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-α), which plays a vital role in sperm formation. When tested on mice, targeting the RAR-α gene made them sterile without any apparent side effects. Dr Abdullah Al Noman, highlights that despite years of scientists attempting to create an effective male oral contraceptive, scientists are now trying to “develop a non-hormonal male contraceptive to avoid [the common] side effects” of hormonal contraception, as “people are not taking it for a disease, so they are less tolerant of side effects.”
There is still a long way to go as they haven’t yet conducted human trials. However, it is estimated that if successful, this contraceptive pill could be on the market within the next five years. This would dramatically reduce the burden of birth control that is currently placed on women, as the responsibility would be more easily shared. It would also grant men a greater sense of control over the contraception process, rather than just relying on their sexual partner.
Currently, there are only two forms of contraception available to men: condoms and vasectomies, compared to a multitude of female options. However, condoms provide only short-term protection and can be easily damaged, reducing their reliability. Contrastingly, vasectomies, surgical procedures, offer a long-term solution, but are not easily reversed. Therefore, this contraceptive pill would offer a long-term alternative that can also be stopped at any time.
It cannot be ignored that scientists have worked hard to develop a non hormonal pill for men which avoids the very side effects women have edured for years. While thse findings may allow male sterility to be reduced via non hormonal intervention it does raise the question: is there enough focus on improving the contraceptive experience for women? In a recent UK survey of 1,000 women, 25% said they believed the potential side effects of the pill were properly explained to them, and 50% said they have had “serious trouble” with contraceptives.
Although there are non-hormonal options for women, such as the coil, the procedures can be extremely painful, leaving long-lasting discomfort. Therefore, it seems our attitude towards female contraception needs updating, as it seems absurd that no safer alternatives have been developed.
Because there have been few options made avaliable for men many women also face great pressure when it comes to birth control. The survey showed that one-fourth of women admitted they were “under pressure from someone, be it a family member, a healthcare professional, or a partner” to take contraception. Therefore, many women are more likely to suffer in silence.
But how many men would take this pill, and how many women would rely on them to do it? A recent US poll posed this question to 500 sexually active men and women, who expressed their feelings about this new option. The findings highlighted men’s willingness and openness to the pill, with two in three agreeing they would be likely to take it. However, nearly one-fifth of women admitted to not trusting men to do it. Therefore, despite men’s willingness to lift the burden somewhat from women, many women would still prefer to be the ones in charge of birth control. This is not surprising as women are the ones who risk falling pregnant. However, this unwillingness may stem from the fact that this responsibility has been engrained into women.
However, maybe we all need to be more open-minded. Just because women have borne this burden for centuries now, this doesn’t always have to be the case. The male contraceptive pill signals great progress in terms of society’s attitudes towards birth control. Although, it does underline the need for similar scientific revision of female contraception, to avoid normalising the discomfort and pain many women are currently facing.
Words by Hannah Robinson
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