The Current

Researchers are getting closer to a male birth control gel, but will men use it?

Researchers are exploring options for male contraceptives similar to the pill, and scientists say they're getting closer to putting something on the shelves. But will men take them? Will women trust men to take them? And why didn't this happen years ago?

Women are a little tired of bearing the entire burden of contraception, says scientist

One of the male contraceptive options being researched is a gel that men rub into their shoulders. It has proven effective at suppressing sperm in a trial that lasted six months. (Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock)
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One of the challenges of developing male birth control is that men just have so many sperm, according to a Canadian scientist leading efforts to formulate a version of the pill for men.

"Women ovulate and they produce about one, sometimes two eggs a month," said Dr. Stephanie Page, a professor with the University of Washington School of Medicine.

"For men, the challenge is a little different, because men make millions, literally millions of sperm a day," she told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"Part of the challenge has been determining how low we need to go, did we need to get rid of all the sperm with these products, or were a few okay in the ejaculate?"

Figuring that out took a while, she said. While healthy male ejaculate can carry 15 to 150 million sperm per millilitre, a contraceptive that reduced that to under 1 million per millilitre would be 98 to 99 per cent effective, similar to the female pill.

What options are scientists looking at?

A contraceptive pill for men recently passed the first round of safety tests in the U.S.

Page explained that there are multiple options being looked at, including an injection, a pill and a gel.

We asked men - and women - in Toronto if they'd take pills or gels to suppress sperm count. 1:09

Her team is in the early stages of testing the injection, on 40 men enrolled in a clinical trial. The aim is to produce a single injection that men can take every three to six months. So far it's been effective for a period of two to three months, she said.

Page said her team is also working on two prototype pills, both of which have been proven to be safe in a trial that lasted one month. One of those pills is now undergoing a three-month trial.

Dr. Stephanie Page is one of the lead researchers into a number of male contraceptive options, including a pill, an injection, and a gel. (Brian Donohue)

The gel, which is rubbed into the male's shoulders, has proven effective at suppressing sperm in a trial that lasted six months. It is now being deployed in a multinational trial, where couples use it as their only form of birth control. Page expects results from that trial "in a couple of years."

The trials have shown hints of some of the side effects seen with female contraceptives, such as "changes in mood, changes in sex drive, changes in sexual function, weight gain," she said.

"But we're really excited that particularly the gel doesn't seem to be associated with a large number of side-effects."

Men have viewed it as completely the woman's responsibility- Jonathan Eig

Despite those potential side-effects, Page believes men are interested in having their own form of birth control, and women will be interested in it too.

"I think that women are a little tired of bearing the entire burden of contraception, and so having options for men would probably be welcome among a number of couples," she told Chattopadhyay.

If the studies are successful, Page is "pretty optimistic that within a decade, we might be able to see one of these products available for men … 10 years is realistic."

Watch how Canadians reacted to the arrival of the pill in the 1960s

The availability of a pill to prevent pregnancy spurs changing sexual attitudes among Canadians in 1964. 2:08

Why has a male contraceptive taken so long?

In the 1950s, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger arranged funding for a scientist to conduct early research that led to the female contraceptive pill, said journalist Jonathan Eig.

"That scientist suggested that they also use the same hormones to experiment with male birth control," said Eig, author of The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution.

"And Sanger said: 'Absolutely not.'

"She cut off funding for that part of the research because she was worried that ... men could not be counted on, and women had to have the power to do this, in order for it to be effective."

He said that as a result, culturally, "men have viewed it as completely the woman's responsibility."

The Current contacted the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Merck and Bayer, which all manufacture female contraceptives, to ask if they are researching and developing male contraceptives. Merck and Pfizer told us they are not researching male contraceptives at this time. Bayer didn't respond.

"Part of the problem here is that the pill has made a lot of money over the years, and the drug companies don't have as much incentive to develop something new," Eig said.

Men have stopped seeing contraception as something they do for the sake of their partners, said Lisa Campo-Engelstein. (Keira Lemonis)

Lisa Campo-Engelstein argued that men will have to demand the tools to control their own reproduction, the same way women did.

"We see that men are becoming more involved in child rearing. More men are taking paternity leave. There are more stay-at-home dads," said Campo-Engelstein, who teaches bioethics at Albany Medical College in New York state.

"There's been this shift from understanding male contraception as something that men do for the sake of their female partner, to something that men do for themselves."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jessica Linzey, Allie Jaynes and Danielle Carr.

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