The point of contraception is to provide reliable and reversible ways of preventing pregnancy without too many uncomfortable side effects.
So why has it taken six decades before we are at the point where a contraceptive jab is a reality for men?
There are several possible answers to this.
Firstly, that we just live in a sexist society, where men see contraception as ‘the woman’s responsibility’, and where it is OK for women to have their hormones interfered with in a major way in order to prevent pregnancy, but not for men.
Secondly, because women are the ones who actually end up having the babies (both wanted and unwanted), men are simply less invested in preventing pregnancy, because they can and unfortunately often do just walk away.
Thirdly, a lack of financial investment from pharmaceutical companies, many of which are run by men. To develop a new drug, put it through its trials, and market it, can cost billions, and they might think they won’t recoup their costs.
Fourthly, male hormones are complicated things. (But then so are fragile egos). In an age when complicated transplants are possible, surely medical science must be able to figure out the secrets behind the magic that is male hormones.
The Pill for men is here – or isn’t it?
And now they have. The latest contraceptive injection for men has been found to be 96% effective, in a study that involved 320 men.
Three quarters of them said they would continue to use it if it were available. But before you rush off to get some for your partner, there’s some bad news: the study was halted, because 20 of the 320 men – that’s one in every 16, complained that they suffered from mood disorders, depression, muscle pain, acne and increased libido.
The poor things. However can anyone be expected to cope with that?
By gritting your teeth and getting on with it: that’s what women have done for centuries.
Hormonal fluctuations because of the monthly menstrual cycle can cause many of the same side effects experienced when taking hormonal contraceptives.
Acne, depression, headaches, dizziness and nausea are all often part and parcel of the lives of most women of reproductive age. And the World Health Organization decides to halt a study involving men because of these very things?
An effective hormonal contraceptive for men would take the burden off many women, who wonder about the wisdom of interfering with their hormones for decades on end.
True partnerships are about shared responsibility on every level, and, but for the 20 crybabies with acne on the study mentioned above, this could now have included hormonal contraception. (I can hear the conversations: “I have done it for a decade, now it’s your turn.”)
The Pill for women
Getting to the point of marketing the Pill for women in the 50s and 60s was no walk in the park, especially for those who took part in the clinical trials.
The contraceptive Pill for women, developed in the 1950s, was initially just used for severe menstrual disorders, but was approved by the FDA for contraceptive use in 1960.
It gave women control over their own reproductive lives, and for the first time in history, provided an effective way of preventing unwanted pregnancies. It meant that reproduction was no longer the probable result of having sex.
But while millions of women around the world started taking the new pill that suppressed ovulation, the truth was that no one really knew what the long-term effects of it would be, nor whether the many side effects were potentially dangerous.
Standards were clearly different in the 60s, as the FDA would be unlikely to register a new drug today without knowledge of the results of lengthy clinical trials.
What’s more, the women who participated in the initial trails agreed to participate, but never signed consent forms, as is customary today.
The enormously high levels of both progestin and oestrogen in the original brand, called Enovid, had several very unpleasant side effects, which included dizziness, nausea, vomiting and headaches, water retention and weight gain. There were also several cases of women developing blood clots (thrombosis).
Twenty-five women withdrew from the trial because of the side effects, but before we point fingers at them, and excuse the men who have withdrawn from the recent trial connected to the male hormonal contraceptive, it should be noted that just the progestin levels in those pills tested in the 1950s were up to 66 times higher than they are in the contraceptive pills on sale today. And the oestrogen levels at least three times as high.
Those women were clearly made of strong stuff. Stronger than our 20 guys mentioned above with acne and a headache or two – which made them run for the hills.
All I can say is the following: Guys, it’s time to man up. Sexual freedom comes with sexual responsibility, and if it means a bit of acne, and a mood swing, and a headache welcome to the real world.
(New Scientist, World Health Organization, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, plannedparenthood.org)