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Out of control: Men have few reliable options for birth control

This story was reported for the San Diego News Network on May 10, 2010.

See original copy of story.

Fifty years ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for women — but why isn’t there one for men yet?

Today, more than 100 million women worldwide and 12 million U.S. women may be asking themselves that question.

Experts say there are different reasons why there isn’t a male version of the pill.

Even though it varies, experts can agree on one fact: Many women have the primary responsibility of regulating child bearing, and even if men had the “opportunity” to take their version of the pill, they might not want the responsibility.

“It takes two to tango but the only contraceptive men have is the condom,” said SDSU Women’s Studies professor Kimala Price. “We basically dumped the responsibility on women and when men are done, they’re gone.”

On May 9, 1960, the FDA approved a pill that would change the lives of millions of women. The Enovid 10 mg “freed up” the lives of American women – not only allowing women to have sexual encounters but making it “easier for women to go out into the workforce and not worry about pregnancy,” said Price.

Not only that, the pill allowed for advancements in women’s health research, said Planned Parenthood’s Jennifer Coburn.

“Very quickly, the availability of the pill in America resulted in huge advancements in women’s and infant health, and a decline in unintended pregnancies — particularly among married women,” she said.

Though like any good American issue, the birth control pill is political (court cases making it legal for married couples or single gals to use the pill), a new CBS poll shows, “Men (59 percent), women (54 percent), and women who have ever taken the pill (54 percent) say that women’s lives were improved as a result of the birth control pill.”

In the age of cute little pills and a bevy of other options for women, men have but four options to prevent themselves from being a baby’s daddy — abstinence, coitus interruptus, the condom or sterilization – according to a study titled “Gender Roles and Male Contraception” by University of Utah philosophy professors Christopher Peterson and Margaret Battin.

So if the pill is such a good deal, why isn’t there one for men?

While inequality does exist when considering which sex is forced to carry the responsibility of birth control, Peterson and Battin point out in their study, men are “faced with an inequality of opportunity.”

“It cannot be doubted that men gamble every day that the contraception currently available to them will be sufficient to protect their choices about when, how, and with whom to reproduce, and every day men end up wrong.”

Besides, it’s just not as easy to make a birth control pill for men, said experts.

The answer lies more in the physiology of male reproduction, said Population Council’s senior scientist Narender Kumar.

In women, the ovulation process is “easy to stop,” given the fact that only one egg is released each cycle. Whereas in men, “millions of sperm are produced and it is a continuous cycle,” Kumar said.

“So I would say it is not that less is being done/researched in (the) male contraception field but it is just the difficulties in arresting spermatogenesis in male that is responsible for not having a male pill,” Kumar said. “Even now, we do not have any solid leads for male pill.”

But there’s still hope.

Last Monday, Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute announced that it received a $1.5 million grant to study a male contraceptive that “uses a combination of two hormonal gels applied to the skin of the arm and abdomen.”

Christina Wang and Ronald Swerdloff — who are leading the research of the contraceptive — are currently enrolling 60 men between the ages of 18 and 50 to take part in the study.

The researchers will test the two gels to find out if they can successfully suppress sperm production to “near zero levels.”

“If this combination lowers sperm counts to levels compatible with contraception, then it will be followed by a study to see if pregnancy protection is actually demonstrated,” Swerdloff said.

Swerdloff hopes that the contraceptive will not only prevent unwanted pregnancies but men will get “more involved in their personal health care.”

“Just as women gained greater control over their reproductive choices and their health with the advent of the birth control pill, a male contraceptive would get men more involved in their personal health care and would give them greater reproductive choices,” he said.

Though it’s been 50 years since the pill hit the market, Swerdloff said there has been progress with the creation of the male contraceptive.

“We have shown that the various testosterone preparations (that) protect against pregnancy are safe, and are reversible,” he said. “We are now trying to refine the process to give earlier onset, greater ease of administration and even greater effectiveness. Developing new approaches to family planning [is] done carefully to assure safety.”

But don’t hold your breath — the doc said it usually takes about seven years for “this class of drug to move through the approval process.”

Though the male version of the pill wouldn’t hit the market for another few years, the study by the University of Utah professors shows men may not even wish to use the contraceptive if given the choice.

Peterson and Battin also point out that because of the gender roles which have been established over the years, a mindset has been created that contraceptive responsibility must primarily be given to women. (But men still have legal responsibility; See gray box).

So, “whether men could share responsibility, even if they wanted to, the answer, quite simply, is no.”

“The lack of a reliable male contraceptive option sends a message to all society about the role of women,” stated the study. “This message tells each of us that women are primarily responsible for maintaining the conditions necessary to prevent the conception of children.”

So what’s the lesson from this article? Well, let’s look at the facts first. (1) Women are given the ultimate burden of preventing mama drama. (2) A male version of the pill won’t exist for another few years. (3) Men may not even want to use their version of the pill even it was available. (4) If we want to see change in the “mindset” of gender roles, it’s time we talk about it more.

Until we see that day, the lesson is simple: Make sure the thug, at least, buys you two drinks before you make love in the club.

Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network.