Our On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With The Male Birth Control Pill

He keeps disappointing us, but we’re still holding out hope.

1. On, 1988: the thunder god vine gives us hope.

Okay, not the very first. Men have been using various herbal remedies to prevent conception for millennia. But one of the first compounds to show male-birth-control possibilities in recent memory was Tripterygium wilfordii, sometimes called thunder god vine. As far back as 1986, research had shown that an extract of this vine could suppress male fertility, probably by hampering sperm development. A 1994 paper on the subject said the vine’s potential contraceptive properties had “stimulated worldwide interest.” Exciting!

2. Off, 2012: thunder god vine fails to make any big moves.

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Except that more than 25 years later, despite some added research, we’re pretty close to where we started with thunder god vine. A 2002 study opens pretty much exactly the way the 1994 one did: “The male antifertility effect of […] Tripterygium wilfordii has attracted worldwide interest.” It’s not clear exactly why TW hasn’t caught on more, though it could be because the plant also suppresses the immune system (in fact, drugs derived from it are already available to treat autoimmune disorders). Interesting, but not available — like so many an unreliable paramour, thunder god vine says someday, baby, someday.

3. On, 2002: hormones suggest commitment at last.

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In 2002, pharmaceutical companies Schering and Organon got together to work on a male hormonal contraceptive, similar to the female birth control pill. Two drug giants, working together — our hearts were aflutter.

4. Off, 2009: thwarted by needle phobia.

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But their collaboration was scrapped in 2006, because the hormonal method would require too many injections (one method for women, Depo-Provera, requires an injection every three months, but never mind). All male-contraceptive work at Schering and Organon stopped by 2009, after both companies were bought out.

5. On, 1993: goo looks promising.

“Goo” doesn’t sound very romantic, and neither does this method’s technical name, “reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance.” But it held out a tantalizing promise — an injection of a polymer into the vas deferens (the tube that carries sperm out of the testicles), that incapacitates sperm without affecting hormones or libido, and is completely reversible. Human trials in India in 1993 and 2000 were successful.

6. Off, 2002: safety concerns drive us apart.

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But in 2002, World Health Organization inspectors raised concerns about the RISUG trials, and recommended they be redone. There were concerns about safety, and side effects (the goo’s developer says tests have shown the goo is safe, and side effects are minimal). In an analysis of the future of male contraception, Michael Torrice writes that any side effects of male birth control would have to be “negligible” (although for many women, the side effects of existing birth control are not). Trials are resuming in India, but so far, one of the biggest grants to RISUG’s developer has been earmarked to help him explore the polymer’s use in women.

7. On, 2012: gamendazole makes big claims.

A non-hormonal drug called gamendazole has been getting buzz for stopping sperm development. It’s been tested in rabbits, mice, and monkeys — if effective, it could be even better than the female pill, stopping fertility without affecting hormone levels (when do we get that?).

8. Off, possibly in future: trust issues could get in the way.

stefanolunardi / Via shutterstock.com

This option isn’t off the table yet — it still needs to be tested in humans. But it may suffer from a bit of “it’s not you, it’s me.” One member of the team behind gamendazole has been interviewing people about their feelings on a male pill, and what he’s found isn’t totally encouraging: “Do men trust themselves to take it and do women trust the men? Men do trust themselves. Women trust men, but not as much. It depends on the stage of their relationship.” Of course, guys could take the pill as a precaution for themselves even if their female partners stayed on contraception. But women’s fear that men won’t take their pills may be part of why drug companies have been reluctant to fund male contraceptive research. Then again, men aren’t helping — asked if he could be trusted to take a birth control pill regularly, one single man told EmAndLo.com, “I might take them if they tasted like beer.”

9. On, 1970 and 2012: ultrasound offers a new beginning.

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The idea of using ultrasound to kill sperm goes back to 1970, but earlier this year, scientists revived it. They found that using ultrasound near rat testes effectively incapacitated their sperm.

10. Off: not yet. Could this be The One?

Igor Klimov / Via shutterstock.com

Nothing has come along to derail ultrasound sperm treatment yet, though it hasn’t been tested in humans. Maybe this, or gamendazole, or one of the other non-hormonal treatments on the horizon, is the one we’ve been waiting for all this time. John Amory, a doctor familiar with birth control research, told Michael Torrice we could probably expect male birth control in ten years. Then again, he also noted that people have been saying exactly that for thirty years. But this time things will be different! Right? Right?

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