A contraceptive pill for men got good news from a preliminary study last week. And although still years away, experts say a pill for men could change contraception dramatically — but only if women can trust their sexual partners.
The pill would be a radical new contraceptive option for men, who currently can only choose among condoms, vasectomy and abstinence. But would anyone use it? Men may not want to take a daily dose of hormones, and some women say anyone without a uterus probably shouldn't be trusted.
"I definitely would try it. I hate condoms," said Hal, a 32-year-old advertising executive. "But my wife might feel better about taking the responsibility herself unless she wanted a kid — because we both know I would forget to take the pill."
Such forgetfulness would be dangerous, possibly resulting in sperm production and pregnancy because of the way the pill works: a synthetic hormone stops men from producing testosterone, the manly hormone that's essential for producing sperm.
With no testosterone, libido would disappear along with facial and pubic hair, so the men also are given testosterone patches to keep their hormone levels relatively normal; as long as the testosterone isn't produced in the testes, they won't be producing sperm either.
Phase one trials of the pill, designed to test whether a drug is safe, found that men became totally azoospermic — their sperm counts dropped to zero. The Dutch pharmaceutical firm Organon wants to have its pill on the shelves within five years.
It's a Trust Thing
Men's concerns aside, it's women who will carry the baby, and some question whether men have any real incentive to be responsible.
"Why would it benefit them?" said Georgia, a singer from Miami. "There is no way I would trust a man to take birth control pills, simply because they've never had the experience of morning sickness, and they never will." Men in committed relationships might disagree, of course, but that doesn't describe everyone.
A male pill also introduces the possibility of dishonest men lying about their fertility, especially outside the boundaries of long-term relationships.
"If a man says 'I'm on the pill,' is it just a come-on line for the new sensitive guy?" said Carole Joffe, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis who's studied the social impact of contraception.
As for men, the reaction varies. Some like the idea of forgoing latex; others are fine with the contraceptive status quo.
"I highly doubt I would ever take it," said Nestor, a 32-year-old record label executive from New Jersey. "I fear the potential side effects of everything, and the pill has crazy side effects on women." The initial study on the Organon pill found few side effects, but it does tinker with men's hormone levels.
But other fellas might find the pill more appealing — especially those who are no friend of the condom, the only method of male birth control currently available besides vasectomy and abstinence.
Not for One Night Stands
The pill will likely appeal most to couples in long-term relationships and marriage, because there is such a high level of trust involved and because the pill wouldn't protect against STDs.
"That's where the real payoff would be: Couples who are together who aren't worried about STDs, who want to share in responsibility for birth control," Joffe said.
Society may not be accepting of men on the pill — you can expect a few "men are morons" jokes from the Jay Lenos of the world — but Joffe thinks the development of another contraceptive option would definitely be a good thing.
From a historical viewpoint, men taking charge of their fertility would be a big change in gender relations, she said. "A very common complaint among women is 'Why do we have to do all the work of contraception?' But if a man agrees to take this pill, that's a positive."