Why Aren’t Men Demanding Decent Birth Control?

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This piece was originally published on Grist. Republished with permission.

 Contraception has long been the province of women. Isn’t it about time for men to get in on the game?

It’s obvious why women have historically been the main consumers of birth control — we’re the ones who get pregnant, give birth, and in many cases take primary responsibility for raising kids.

But these days men have a lot more at stake than they used to. Gone is the era when fathers could toss a few baseballs, dole out a few spankings, and call it good. Dads are now expected to be fully engaged in childrearing (and thankfully, many are embracing the role). Also gone is the era when it was easy to support a family on one income, or even two. While the recession rages on and earning power shrinks, the cost of raising children just keeps going up; a middle-income American family can expect to spend about $227,000 [PDF] on a kid over their first 17 years.

In cases where the biological father is not coupled up with the biological mother, he’s liable for child support. That can make a fleeting romance or a one-night stand into an extremely expensive proposition. (Just ask multi-millionaire Steve Bing, the subject of two high-profile paternity disputes a few years ago. You can bet he wasn’t crowing to his lawyer about having “slipped one past the goalie.”)

Given the high expectations and high stakes, why aren’t more men demanding better contraceptive options? Women’s options aren’t great, but men’s are paltry and pathetic by comparison. Guys basically have two methods they can control themselves: use a condom or get snipped. And, oh yeah, the old standbys of abstinence and withdrawal.

“Our options suck,” said one unhappy man quoted in Wired. Why aren’t more men saying the same thing?

New research published this spring pointed toward the possibility of a male birth-control pill being developed a few years down the line. This prompted chatter about whether men could be trusted to take such a pill. A totally nonscientific poll on the British Daily Mail website had three-quarters of respondents saying no.

But women can’t necessarily be trusted to handle birth control either, considering that almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended.

In an ideal world, you would never have to trust anyone else to take care of birth control. If you didn’t want to become a parent in the near future, you’d take care of it yourself. Couples would equally share the responsibility for birth control, and decisions to have children would be mutual, coming about when both partners decided to stop using their respective contraceptive methods.

We’ve got a long way to go to reach that utopia. Male birth control continues to prove elusive, despite many years of claims that a breakthrough is just a year or two away.

A number of research teams are looking for a male pill — based on vitamin Atestosterone, or deactivated sperm.

Another line of research looks potentially more promising. Scientist Sujoy Guha has been working for more than 30 years on a quick, easy, cheap, one-time, reversible procedure that has worked essentially 100 percent of the time in clinical trials, according to a recent Wired article. Named RISUG (reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance), the procedure is being rebranded as Vasalgel. It consists of a relatively straightforward injection of a chemical coating into the vas deferens, which then incapacitates sperm as they travel from testes to penis, making them unable to fertilize an egg. It works for 10 years, or until a man decides to get it reversed. (Wanna watch a video of it? Yeah, I didn’t think so, but if curiosity is getting the better of you, there’s one embedded in the Wired story.)

The procedure could get approval in India “in as little as two years,” according to Wired. But don’t hold your breath. Grist too reported that RISUG approval was just around the corner – back in 2003.

Pharmaceutical companies don’t care for the Vasalgel option — they’d much rather get millions of men on birth-control-pill prescriptions that need to be filled over and over again. (Welcome to our world, boys.) So funding to get Vasalgel to the market might need to come from private philanthropies like the Gates Foundation or organizations like Planned Parenthood or USAID, Wiredreports. Gates did make a grant to Guha last year to study whether a variation of RISUG could work for women, but it hasn’t supported the research focused on men.

Guys, would you like to see this process speeded up? Make some noise. And drop @BillGates a line.

Lisa Hymas is senior editor at Grist, which she cofounded back in the day. You can follow her on Twitter and Google+. She writes on politics, population, and other green issues. She coined the acronym GINK (green inclinations, no kids) and won a 2010 Population Institute Global Media Award for her writing on the childfree choice. If you’re like-minded, become a fan of GINK on Facebook. If you’re not, no hard feelings.

Photo credit robertelyov/Flickr

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