Is It Just Us, or Does This News About Male Birth Control Make the Pill Look Really Sexist?

This response to studies on male hormonal contraception raises important questions about gender bias in medicine.
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This response to studies on male hormonal contraception raises important questions about gender bias in medicine.

According to a study released late last week by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, male hormonal birth control—an injection that lowers sperm count—has been found to be almost as reliable as the female counterpart. It does, however, cause side effects, including but not limited to depression, acne, and increased libido, causing many to discredit it as an option. “The development of a safe and effective reversible method of male contraception is still an unmet need,” the report states.

Depression, acne, libido changes. Those sound a whole lot like . . . side effects for female hormonal contraception. Not only has the FDA issued warnings of increasing the risk of blood clots in women taking the Pill, but recent studies have also found that all forms of hormonal birth control are associated with increased risk of depression and first use of antidepressants.

This latest report regarding male contraception raises questions about the history of gender bias toward hormonal birth control for women versus men. According to Holly Grigg-Spall, author of Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, hormone-based contraceptives for men are not under-studied and have been tested for nearly as long as female hormonal birth control. But early testing for male hormonal birth control was halted because of negative effects—such as the shrinking of participants’ testicles—whereas testing for the female pill continued despite findings that show similar side effects in women’s ovaries.

Grigg-Spall says, “I’m not advocating that men do use a hormone-based contraceptive—as clearly, from the studies, we know it to be no better than the female versions. The point is that men are not given the choice. They are, essentially, being protected from the same side effects women have suffered for some sixty years, even though, according to this study, three-quarters of the [male] participants said they would like to use the injection ongoing.”

“At the same time,” Grigg-Spall adds, “women are not protected from the side effects (which extend to death) and instead sold any number of new formulations year-in-year-out that pharmaceutical companies can profitably patent. We should ask: Why are they being protected? Why can a drug like the ‘female Viagra’ be recently brought to market (and simply not sell well at all), but a hormone-based male contraceptive cannot when there’s a clear interest from men?”

One answer is a history of gender bias in research and its effects on evidence-based medicine. A 2007 report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine states that in regard to contraceptive use in clinical trials, “the study concluded that access to studies by women created burdens that were disproportionate to men.” Further, some aspects that did not appear to be considered by researchers or ethics committees “included the risks of contraceptives. . . . that fetal harm may also affect men, that the risk of fetal exposure to one dose of a drug was minimal, and that women could make their own decisions.”

“I think if anyone had any doubt as to the sexism that underlies the history, development, and promotion of the Pill for women (or synthetic hormones as a whole),” Grigg-Spall says, “the response to this study should provide solid proof.”

Fertility shouldn’t only involve women exclusively, nor should it be about men. And certainly, it shouldn’t have to be a danger to either party. Luckily, there is increasing awareness around Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABMs), which, unlike hormonal contraception, are natural, hormone-free, and free of side effects.

FABMs allow for a collective effort on the part of men and women to understand natural fertility cycles to ultimately help couples avoid or achieve pregnancy. “FABMs can provide an opportunity for men to take on more of the responsibility for avoiding pregnancy,” Grigg-Spall tells us. “When practiced right, I think this is one of the advantages of this method.”

With FABMs, family planning becomes less about singling out either the man or the woman and more about sharing the responsibility. “FABMs absolutely require that the male partner is respectful of a woman’s desire to not use hormonal contraceptives and require a shift in his perception of her responsibility and, in fact, her body.”

“For both men and women,” Grigg-Spall reminds us, “becoming fertility-aware can start a larger change in how we perceive and treat women, and how we build relationships.”

The recent implications surrounding male hormonal birth control are prompting researchers to continue their efforts in learning more about its effects on the health of both men and women. But with continuous findings on the negative effects of hormonal birth control for both sexes, perhaps it’s time we invest in educating men and women on FABMs and the natural fertility of women’s bodies.

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners