Male Birth Control: Seeds of Revolution?

Alison Ojanen-Goldsmith

Condoms, vasectomies and the withdrawal method are the only birth control options available to men. Why is there a glaring gap in male-controlled methods?

Media interest in
contraceptive options for men has surged in recent weeks — in both contraceptive
methods available now and those still in development.  Right now, condoms, vasectomies and the
withdrawal method are the only options available for a man to prevent an
unwanted pregnancy-all of which have their obvious limitations.  While most women have a number of birth
control options to choose from, why is there a glaring gap in male-controlled
methods?

The next generation of
male contraceptive methods, including pills, injectibles and implants, has been
in research and development for over 20 years, yet experts still predict that
it will be four to ten years at best before we see a marketable product. Recent
articles in The
LA Times
, the Washington
Post
, and Time Magazine
have cited the lack of public interest and, ultimately, the lack of a market
for pharmaceutical companies as the major reasons for the lag in male
contraception development. Researchers name the failure of pharmaceutical
companies to invest in large clinical trials as a major hang up and state that
pharmaceutical companies are out of touch with "public and medical perceptions
of need."  Indeed, a spokeswoman for
Organon was quoted last year in Chemistry
World,
an industry journal, as saying the prospect of a male contraceptive
"acceptable to a wide population of men is unlikely." 

But is this really the
case?  Does the American public truly
think that new forms of male birth control have little use in modern-day family
planning?  Is it true, as I’ve heard
sprinkled throughout my conversations with individuals and the blogosphere,
that we don’t trust men to use a new male contraceptive reliably?  Kirsten Thompson, director of the Male Contraception Coalition and
one of the few advocates for male contraception, has had similar experiences.
"The biggest hurdle that I’ve encountered in trying to share this
information is a sort of knee-jerk reaction that men aren’t interested in these
kinds of contraceptives and that women won’t trust them to take them," she
says.

What is clear is the
media, bloggers
and researchers are talking about male contraception-the potential successes,
failures and implications.  Last year the
National Institutes of Health held a "Future of Male Contraception" conference
in Seattle,
highlighting the science and technical aspects of male contraception
development, but lending little to advocacy. 
In addition to Thompson’s Male Contraception Coalition, the only other
advocacy organization dedicated to male contraception is the Male Contraception Information
Project
headed by Elaine Lissner.   Where is the larger, coordinated advocacy for
the future of these technologies and where is the broader support for the
rights of men to control their fertility and become more active family
planners?

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As reproductive health
and rights advocates we can take a proactive stance and seize this opportunity
to show that we are committed to our values of equality. This is a chance to
debunk harmful gender stereotypes and to build connections between men, the
oft-forgotten stakeholders in reproduction, and the traditionally (and
necessarily so) woman-focused reproductive health community. We can lend our
knowledge, advocacy and lessons learned from the struggle to achieve women’s
reproductive rights to this new revolution. With the prospect of male
contraception, we have an opportunity to educate and engage men in the
importance of family planning options and to ultimately gain an untapped
constituency for gender equity and reproductive justice.

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