The responsibility for preventing pregnancy often falls on women, but a new birth control shot for men might challenge that idea.
Medical researchers around the world, including the United Kingdom and Australia, began testing a hormonal birth control shot for men in 2008.
The scientists stopped the study in 2012 due to the participants’ side effects of depression, but an IU professor said she believes a sexist double-standard halted the work, hindering efforts toward gender equality of pregnancy responsibility.
“I think it’s quite clear that there’s a double-standard in this research,” said Elisabeth Lloyd, endowed professor of history and philosophy of science.
The observed rate of depression in the male participants was not out of the ordinary, Lloyd said, nor was it far from the normal depression rate for both men and women.
“What surprised me was when they got a two to three percent depression rate when that’s normal for men,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd said she believes a normal side effect for women’s birth control might have generated more concern when observed in men.
Mario Festin, Medical Officer of Family Planning and Contraception at the Human Reproduction team at the World Health Organization, communicated with the safety committee during the study.
“The safety committee of the study felt that the number of side effects, although most of these were mild and would resolve easily, were too many,” Festin said.
Before terminating the study, the safety committee felt the drug was already proven to adequately lower sperm count.
The unfavorable side effects may have outweighed any further findings, Festin said.
The team declined to comment in response to Lloyd’s claim of a sexist double-standard, according to WHO Communications Specialist Elizabeth Noble.
Lloyd also pointed out severity of the risks women face in taking birth control, including pulmonary embolism and stroke.
“When women take birth control, they are risking very serious side effects and even death,” Lloyd said.
Such a double-standard shows a disregard for these side effects in women, Lloyd said.
The researchers recorded the sperm counts in the semen samples of the 320 men, aged 18 to 45, who took the birth control shot.
Their sperm counts dropped to less than one million per milliliter, compared to the WHO’s fertile standards of 15 million per milliliter, after two weeks.
After the men stopped receiving shots, the scientists studied how sperm count would recover, if at all.
The sperm count did not rise above one million per milliliter for 24 weeks for 274 men, making the contraceptive method successful for 96 percent of the users at that time.
Twenty men discontinued the study due to side effects, and six to 14 of these were due to mood changes. The others were due to acne, pain or similar side effects.
Though she said she believes the research procedure was mislead by a sexist bias, Lloyd has hopes for similar contraception methods.
Lloyd said she believes some modification of the drug protocol could make it successful and that further testing would improve the drugs’s potential.
“If they fiddle around with this and they change something about this, it could be workable,” Lloyd said. “There’s a lot of promise in this approach.”
Lloyd said she also hopes that such a drug for hormonal contraception in men might change standards of how people perceive pregnancy.
Instead of simply insisting a man wears a condom to prevent pregnancy, men and women might share similar responsibilities in hormonal contraception, Lloyd said.
“I do hope so for more societal changes,” Lloyd said. “It’s quite possible that we’ll see a more equal burden-sharing of preventing pregnancy.”
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