I make a point to avoid reporting on research about male hormonal birth control because it seems like every month there’s a new press release from a team of scientists or obscure pharmaceutical company claiming that they’re one step closer to achieving the “male Pill”–the equivalent of a hormone birth control pill that’s been taken by women for decades, but would instead by used by male partners.
Then that month’s press release–and the so-called male Pill that’s allegedly thisclose to being ready for production–fades into oblivion along with the flurry of newspaper articles and TV newscasts that excitedly reported on it, giving false hopes and promises about a product that has yet to actually materialize.
Today’s news about the latest male hormonal contraception is no exception: No doubt you’ll be reading or hearing about this new study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism that alleges a new hormonal contraceptive injection is “nearly 96 percent” effective in preventing unintended pregnancies.
If you haven’t heard about it yet, very briefly, here’s what the study shows:
The male hormone contraception is made up of an injection that includes:
1. Progestogen: This is the same synthetic hormone used in the female “mini-Pill” and mimics progesterone (the hormone that rises and falls during the second half of your monthly cycle). Its role is to suppress the production of sperm by acting on the pituitary gland in the brain.
2. Testosterone undecanoate: This is a synethetic form of testosterone that’s used to counterbalance the reduction in natural testosterone that occurs when a man takes progestogen.
The benefits of this particular male birth control is that it’s not a daily pill–which is not only a hassle as many women who take a daily birth control pill already know, it would be nearly impossible to be certain that your partner actually took that pill every day. With male birth control being administered with a shot every few weeks, at least you could be there in the room to witness it.
The downside of this male birth control is that it currently is so prone to producing negative side effects, the researchers actually stopped enrolling new study participants because of them. These side effects include depression (one study participant intentionally overdosed on acetaminophen during the trial) and other mood disorders. One participant experienced an unusually fast and irregular heartbeat after he stopped taking the drug. At least one other experienced erectile dysfunction. And others complained about acne, an increased libido, palpitations or pain at the injection site.
During the stage of the trial that measured the drug’s effectiveness on 266 men, four of the volunteers’ partners became pregnant. Three pregnancies were carried to full-term, one was terminated.
Okay, so caught up? Great. Now here’s my beef with this male hormone contraception: Like all other previous attempts at male hormone contraception, it’s nowhere near being ready to use. And one key reason why is safety.
Here’s a statement from Mario Philip Reyes Festin, M.D., of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, one of this study’s co-authors:
“More research is needed to advance this concept to the point that it can be made widely available to men as a method of contraception. Although the injections were effective in reducing the rate of pregnancy, the combination of hormones needs to be studied more to consider a good balance between efficacy and safety.”
Now consider this: The hormone birth control women have been taking for decades–in pills, patches, vaginal rings and injections–is also proven to trigger depression and other mood problems as well as increase a woman’s risk of serious health disorders, including blood clots and some cancers. And this is a real risk–women have actually died as a direct result of taking hormone birth control. Other common less serious side effects include loss of libido, weight gain, acne, nausea and headaches.
This isn’t too suprising considering that hormones–both natural and synthetic–have powerful effects on the brain and body. It’s why our bodies evolved to produce these chemicals in specific amounts. Adding more hormones or blocking the production of hormones we need to function creates an imbalance.
So, if like men, women also face serious physical and psychological risks using hormone birth control, why is this form of contraception being pushed toward women, but ushered away from men until these risky kinks are worked out?
Another good question is why aren’t scientists studying more effective forms of reversible birth control that do not require hormones for either men or women?
One answer is that hormones are easy to administer. No surgery is needed and you can get them directly from your doctor or pharmacy.
Another reason is that they’re beneficial to pharmaceutical companies since it means that patients will be refilling these prescriptions for years. Unlike the hormone-free IUD, which you simply insert and get checked periodically until you want to have children.
My point is that if as much money and attention was put into research for hormone-free reversible contraception for men and women, we might actually get closer to the ideal birth control that doesn’t come with serious mental and physical risks rather than continue to spin our wheels with “male Pill” study after study that has led nowhere.