The male contraceptive pill: what is hindering the development of male birth control?
Anna Wilmot explores whether there is a future to the male contraceptive pill
When the female contraceptive pill was first developed in the 1960s, the discussion surrounding women’s reproductive health was irrevocably changed. Suddenly, women had an unprecedented level of self-government, and were free to participate in the sexual revolution. But the shifting modern perspective of female sexuality has raised questions about the burden of responsibility when it comes to contraception. Do men have an equal obligation to use effective birth control, or is this primarily a female concern? And when, if ever, will the male version of the revolutionary contraceptive pill hit the market?
Of course, there are options for men, but currently these are limited to condoms and vasectomies (unless you count the ‘pull out method’ which I, and any other rational human being, does not). The notion of a small, safe, daily pill seems heavenly in comparison with these ludicrously out-dated choices. So why are we still waiting for a male contraceptive pill?
When, if ever, will the male version of the revolutionary contraceptive pill hit the market?
Well, ask any of your female friends, and they may answer: “Men don’t think it’s their responsibility”; “it’s too much hassle for them”; “men could easily lie that they’re on the pill”; “they can’t remember to take a pill every day”.
This last point is probably the most significant, as studies have shown that 70 out of 134 women worry that their male partners would forget to take a daily pill. Despite the enormous benefits to this easy form of birth control, women simply do not trust men to take their pills.
And it’s true; men won’t be suffering the nine-month consequences if they forget. But it would be a mistake to think that this is the reason behind the snail-pace progress in developing a male contraceptive pill. After all, whatever their female partners may believe, research has shown that a significant portion of sexually active men would consider, and are keen, to use a daily pill. In a 2018 YouGov poll, 33% of male participants reported that they would at least consider taking the pill if it was on the market.
Surprised? So was the pharmaceutical industry. Which brings us to the real reason behind the frustratingly slow development of the male pill.
“I think that industry has not been convinced about the potential market,” says Professor Richard Anderson (University of Edinburgh), “It’s certainly been a long story – part of it is lack of investment.”
The issue is not a cultural apathy towards male birth control, but instead an industry-wide disregard of a seemingly non-profitable venture. The perceived societal unpalatability of the male contraceptive pill has convinced investors to withhold their funding, which in turn has stunted the development of the pill.
Regardless of this under-funding, it is undeniable that the pill is only in its testing stages. What about those nasty side effects? If you talk to sceptics about this, you will be faced with a slew of pseudo-science about obliterated sex drives, mood disorders and dreaded erectile dysfunctions. However, a recent study at the University of Washington found that the side effects were few and, when present, invariably mild. Although further testing needs to be done, researchers are confident that a safe, effective and affordable male pill is only years away.
The issue is not a cultural apathy towards male birth control, but instead an industry-wide disregard of a seemingly non-profitable venture.
Scientifically, that is. But the fact remains that this area of research is chronically underfunded, mostly relying on charitable donations in order to fund necessary studies. Allan Pacey, from the University of Sheffield, agrees that:
“Unfortunately, so far, there has been very little pharmaceutical company interest in bringing a male contraceptive pill to the market, for reasons that I don’t fully understand but I suspect are more down to business than science.”
With the recent restrictions to abortion rights in Alabama, the question of shared responsibility when it comes to contraception is more important than ever. Both men and women deserve access to an effective daily pill, but the pervasive concern over a dubious male market continues to drag down the scientific development, and makes it hard to estimate when, if ever, a male contraceptive pill will become available.