For decades, women who have sex with men have been asking the same question: Why can’t men help share the responsibility of birth control?
Finally, it’s looking like male birth control is closer to becoming reality, thanks to recent preliminary research showing that a new gel is safe and effective, plus easy to use.
Male birth control gel
The research, which is anticipated to conclude at the end of 2024, is testing contraceptive gel use among men. Men apply the gel to their shoulders each day. Study participants are from the United States and several other countries.
“We know that these methods can be effective for 95% of men, if they’re used as directed,” says Dr. Stephanie Page, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine and chief of endocrinology at UW Medical Center – Montlake, who studies male reproduction and testosterone and who is leading the Seattle branch of the new study. “One of the really important points about this contraceptive gel, in contrast to some other methods that are available for men such as vasectomy, is that we know it’s 100% reversible. When men stop using the gel, in 6-12 weeks, their sperm count comes back and they restore their fertility.”
Why the wait for male birth control options?
You may have heard male birth control studies in the past that were halted early because men experienced undesirable side effects. And you may be wondering: Why are women expected to stoically accept the burden of birth control and its negative side effects, but men aren’t?
One reason is research ethics, which were much looser in the 1950s when the female birth control pill was created. (Researchers even tested the pill on women without telling them what it did — yikes.)
There are also valid physical reasons for the delay, Page says, such as the fact that men produce millions of sperm each day, whereas women only ovulate once a month, which has made it tricky to sort out how many sperm are compatible with effective male contraception.
Two of the female pill’s pioneers, Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick, also intentionally prioritized a female pill over a male one in order to give women more agency and control over our bodies. They didn’t want women to have to rely on men to prevent pregnancy.
Male birth control has actually been in the works since the 1970s with some early studies being conducted right here at UW. Yet, funding is harder to come by for these projects, and since men don’t suffer any of the sometimes-life-threatening risks of pregnancy there hasn’t been the same motivation to develop birth control for them.
Why we need male contraception
“I think men are ready for more contraceptive options. Currently, the only guaranteed reversible contraceptive for men is the condom and, though condoms have a lot of important uses, they are not the most effective way available to prevent pregnancy,” Page says. The use failure rate for condoms is around 13%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Male contraception is becoming increasingly important due to concerns such as worldwide population growth and the fact that almost half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, a serious enough problem that experts have classified it as a public health issue. And now 1 in 3 women face limited access to abortions after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V. Wade, which only adds to the problem.
In our modern world where female birth control is the norm, it’s easy to focus on how it has become a burden for some women instead of how it is freeing. Birth control has been instrumental in improving women’s health and lives, protecting us from the risks of unplanned pregnancy, preventing serious illness like ovarian cancer and even lessening symptoms of chronic conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Because of this, Page says that male contraception is not a replacement for female contraception, but rather an important step toward equality in reproductive health.
“Men are being held more socially accountable for unplanned pregnancy as society evolves. Many men are interested in sharing the burden of contraception and are more interested in controlling their own fertility to prevent unplanned pregnancy,” Page says. “Providing men with effective reversible options could be a game changer.”