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Men Don’t Like Hormonal Birth Control Either, but Maybe There’s Another Way

You could basically sterilize a man with a paperclip—it’s time to give up the pill and get mechanical

Hormonal birth control for men works.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh conducted a yearlong clinical trial with 320 participants, and found that an injected mix of progesterone and testosterone was 96 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, by lowering men’s sperm count.

But the birth control shot won’t be coming to your local pharmacy anytime soon — the trial was stopped early. Why? Twenty of the 320 men (just 6 percent) dropped out of the study because the injections gave them mood swings, made them depressed, and made them break out, so the researchers decided to go back to the drawing board. This wasn’t the last trial necessary before the drug went to market, but a speed bump at any point along the road to availability can stretch the already-slow approval process down even further.

This is clearly ridiculous. Women have been dealing with the exact same side effects from their hormonal birth control for the past 56 years. In the clinical trials of the first birth control pill, which went by the name Enovid, a full 17 percent of the women reported side effects like nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain, and vomiting, but it went to market anyway. The researchers behind those trials considered developing a similar pill for men at the time, but decided that since men demanded a higher quality of life (i.e., would not inconvenience themselves in the slightest), women were more likely to bear the burden of the nasty side effects. The pill was also known, anecdotally, to contribute to depression, mood swings, and other potentially life-threatening unpleasantries since the get-go, but nobody even researched the problem until September of this year. Oh, and there’s also the increased risk of breast cancer and deadly deep vein thrombosis, not to mention, the general obnoxiousness of having to take a stupid pill every day.

And that’s just the pill! IUDs, whether just made of copper or juiced up with hormones, have lots of vocal supporters today, and are generally considered safe (though thousands of women have recently sued one manufacturer over complications resulting from their IUDs). But early iterations of the implants — notably, the Dalkon Shield — were so poorly designed that they caused hundreds of thousands of women to get pelvic infections, which in some cases led to infertility and even death.

Meanwhile, we men have enjoyed the luxury of not having many options when it comes to birth control. Right now, our only baby-stopping technologies are condoms and vasectomies. Condoms work, but they’re a little clunky. Vasectomies definitely work, but they’re pretty much permanent. If a hormonal sperm-stopper were on the market, men could finally stop foisting the burdens of babylessness onto women, and start carrying some of the load themselves (and for the paranoid, stop worrying about the outside chance of pregnancy even without a condom).

So the idea that a few pesky side effects convinced scientists to stop researching this leveler of playing fields has inspired some widespread ire. The tone was generally weary, deadpan and withering. “Men Abandon Groundbreaking Study on Male Birth Control, Citing ‘Mood Changes’” and “Yes, contraceptives have side effects — and it’s time for men to put up with them, too” are good representatives of the two major schools of outrage. But wouldn’t it be better if no one had to put up with these hormonal side effects at all?

The idea that women are the half of the species that should modify their bodies to stop making babies only makes sense in the context of stone-cold patriarchy. Women deal with the shitty effects of birth control because they have to. Men have the luxury of walking away from the consequences of a busted nut — even if legally, they owe child support, and ethically, they owe a lot more, a garnished paycheck and a guilty conscience aren’t much compared to growing a person inside your body.

But if you look at the parental plumbing, the idea that women’s systems should be the ones to get regulated seems totally insane. The female reproductive anatomy is complicated and runs on a timetable. The male reproductive anatomy is basically a squirt gun. Once you get past our fragile self-image and aversion to pain, we’re comically easy to sterilize. All of our baby-making material passes through a tiny little hose, the vas deferens, that’s only about two millimeters wide. Stop it up, and voila — you’ve got a man that can’t get anyone pregnant.

A new method of contraception for men called Vasalgel does just that. Doctors inject a tiny bit of the stuff into the vas deferens, and it stops your sperm from making its way out into the world — you end up shooting blanks. If you ever decide that you actually want to make a baby, you just go back, they flush out the tube with a baking soda solution, and you’re good to go.

The idea has been around for a while — the compound and technique were invented in the 1970s by an Indian biomedical engineer named Sujoy Gupta — and it seems to be on the cusp of starting human clinical trials in the US, after going through several rounds of trials in animals like rabbits and baboons. The early tests have been promising, with the rabbit study finding that sperm counts dropped to zero within about a month of injection, and a small study in humans is supposed to be underway by the end of the 2016.

Earlier this year, the executive director of the Parsemus Foundation (the organization that’s trying to bring Vasalgel to the US market) said that they hope to have the trials wrapped up by 2018, though the process might stretch on until 2020. One of the big challenges for Vasalgel at the moment is finding the millions of dollars necessary for the large-scale trials for FDA approval — big pharma is uninterested in a low-cost, one-time procedure that would knock out their market for the pill, and many of the larger foundations are more interested in promoting women’s birth control in developing nations, based on the belief that men are less inclined to care — but they’re actively seeking funders, and are accepting donations from interested members of the public.

There is a chance that those trials will come up with bad news, and find that the procedure isn’t actually reversible in humans (they’re only recruiting men who are interested in having permanent vasectomies, just in case).

So give us a few more years — if it’s looking like we can’t inject goop into our tubes by 2018, we’ll stop whining and start loading up on hormones. But if it does end up working, that means we can have a world in which no one has to ride a progesterone roller coaster to have control over their babymaking ability. It might not be fair, but at least it’ll be better.