Are You Man Enough for Male Birth Control?

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Condoms and vasectomies aren’t any man’s favorite method of birth control, so this should come as a welcoming sign: A study released on Friday told the world that another effective male birth control method, occasionally searched for and never found within the last century, could be on its way. The problem: Study participants found that there could be, well, side effects.

The study, published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism and cosponsored by the United Nations, used 320 men between the ages of 18 and 45, all with female partners and no known fertility problems. It had two objectives: lower participants’ sperm counts and keep them low to prevent pregnancy in the long-term.

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During the initial phase of the study, the men received two injections every eight weeks of progestin and testosterone, tricking their bodies into stopping their own production of testosterone and lowering sperm count. The end result was promising: a success rate of 96 percent, only slightly less effective than the female birth control pill (99 percent). “The study found it is possible to have a hormonal contraceptive for men that reduces the risk of unplanned pregnancies in the partners of men who use it,” study co-author Dr. Mario Philip Reyes Festin said in a release. “Our findings confirmed the efficacy of this contraceptive method previously seen in small studies.”

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Only one small snag: The study ended early because some of the men reported adverse side effects, such as mood swings, depression, injection-site pain, and increased acne, and quit the trial. You know, the same side effects that you can find in virtually any hormonal birth control method for women, from pills to Levora (direct warning: “Acne may improve or get worse”) to vaginal rings like the NuvaRing. A recent study found that 20 to 30 percent of women who take hormonal contraceptives experience depression. Certain women are more prone to have a stroke. Navigating female birth control methods is a Twister game of contorting to accommodate different side effects, interactions, “black box” warnings, and finding for any semblance of convenience.

There were a few other adverse side effects in the study. It took at least 12 weeks for the participants to fully recover their fertility, but eight of the participants didn’t recover to full fertility even after 52 weeks. Although, yet again, we have a parallel with our other halves: A woman who uses an IUD for an extended period of time could “increase the risk of impairment of fertility to a clinically important extent,” according to a 2001 study.

The lesson here: Hormonal birth control can screw with your hormones — and this has an impact on the rest of your body. Whether the hormonal shifts from this injection do represent long-term health concerns or this is just a case that a few guys can't handle what women have been dealing with for decades is yet to be seen.

As Elizabeth Lloyd, a faculty scholar at Indiana University Bloomington’s Kinsey Institute, told CNN, "You have to compare what women are doing in terms of taking hormones with what men are doing in terms of taking hormones. Are they taking their life in their hands when they take the hormones? Women are.”

The counterpoint goes to Professor Allan Pacey from the University of Sheffield: "The fact that so many side effects were observed in the men who were taking part in the trial is of concern,” he said. “For a male contraceptive to be accepted by men (or women) then it has to be well tolerated and not cause further problems. For me, this is the major concern of this study."

“But,” he continued, “it is noteworthy that 75 percent of the men who took part in the trial would be willing to use this method of contraception again. So perhaps the side effects weren’t all that bad after all.”

A woman could be the president come Tuesday. Equality is within reach, and it’s time for men to (excuse the phrase) man-up if we want any form of protection- and surgery-free birth control. In the meantime, condoms are always on sale somewhere. 

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