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Biology 103
2000 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Sexual Politics and Sperm Inhibition:

The Male Birth Control Pill

Elizabeth Paluska

Birth control is not just a biological issue; it is highly economic and reflects the overall climate of sexual politics in the United States. The initial subject of this paper was not the male birth control pill. Since the female birth control pill has recently turned 40, I intended to critically research the pill's history and the negative and potential long-term risks. However, my research led me to realize that the majority of scientists, doctors and media sing nothing but the praises of the birth control pill. Very little attention is given to the adverse health effects of the pill in the media - and there are quite a few. Granted, the pill has improved throughout time and most of the more serious adverse effects have been corrected. The more recent brands are far less potent than when the pill was first introduced. Today we find headlines reading "The Pill Decreases Risk of Cancer" or observe commercials stating that "the birth control pill is good for you skin". The pill is exalted as a wonder drug and prescribed freely throughout the United States. Yet in a nation where Viagra is one of the top prescribed drugs, a male version of an oral contraceptive is far from reality. This issue clearly demonstrates the attitudes of not only the scientific community, but society as well.

Currently there are two contraceptive options for men - vasectomy and condoms. Vasectomy is a permanent birth control option for men. It is a surgical operation that causes sterility. Vasectomy blocks the vas deferens and keeps sperm out of seminal fluid, thus preventing pregnancy. Vasectomies are nearly 100 percent effective, they are safe and they don't limit sexual pleasure. However, this procedure is intended to be permanent. The other birth control option for males is the condom, which is not 100 percent effective against pregnancy. These are the only two options that men have today. Although these methods are relatively effective, they do not suit every couple's expectations of birth control (5).

One potential method of reversible male birth control that has been explored is the administration of hormones to men that wish to be temporarily sterile. Researchers are testing several types of hormonal contraceptives for men. One approach would use the hormone testosterone combined with a chemical called gonadotropin-releasing hormone antagonist, which blocks another hormone involved in the production of sperm (2). This approach would involve injection under the skin. Another possibility is combining testosterone and progestin hormones. Potential health benefits from a hormonal oral contraceptive for men could aid in advancement of this drug. According to some researchers, a hormone pill may decrease the risk for some cancers and reduce male pattern balding (2). However many hurdles remain, including concern about the negative effects of taking the pill over a long period of time. Dr. David Baird, professor at the Center for Reproductive Biology at the University of Edinburgh, expresses this concern, "If you ask me, 'What will happen if I take it for 30 years,' we can't know until enough men have taken it for 30 years" (2). The male birth control pill also faces financial obstacles; because of the attention on the negative side effects, researchers have encountered problems with funding. Negative side effects, however, are also present for the female birth control pill. Susanne Gnagy, an epidemiologic researcher at Stanford School of Medicine explains, "There haven't been many studies of women who have used the pill for a long period of time. Now that we've had 40 years of women using the pill, we're just beginning to raise questions" (1). The difference between these two concerns is obvious. The female oral contraceptive has been on the market for 40 years despite the fact that we still do not know the long-term effects; while the male version is being rejected because of the uncertainty of its possible long-term effects.

Another recent breakthrough in the medical field has brought attention to a drug called Nifedipine, a common medication used to lower blood pressure (3). According to Susan Benoff from New York School of Medicine, early research this shows that Nifedipine causes reversible male sterility. Nifedipine was introduced in 1982 and belongs to a group of drugs called calcium channel blockers (4). It is used primarily to treat angina and to improve circulation. These calcium blockers work by relaxing the muscles in the walls of the arteries. However, it also changes the structure of the cholesterol membrane of sperm and blocks its ability to bind to a woman's egg, therefore preventing pregnancy (3). The sterility effect usually wears off in 3 months. Benoff explains, "Our observation on the increased cholesterol synthesis suggest that compounds like Nifedipine, which regulate sperm membrane cholesterol, can be developed as male contraceptives." Research is still preliminary; but the drug has been on the market for 18 years and has been fully researched for its use for blood pressure treament. Benoff's research is stalled because she is unable to get funding. "Drug companies don't see the male as having an active role in family planning," Benoff explains. She has been turned down for funding by several large drug companies. Only one agreed that her research is worth looking into. She explains that drug companies she has approached don't want Nifedipine to be known for its effect on male reproduction (3).

Emphasis on the negative side effects in the media demonstrates the pharmaceutical industry's attitude towards the idea of male birth control. In an age when Viagra is one of the top selling and top promoted drugs, one cannot say that the American public is non-receptive to the idea of drugs that affect men's sexual function. As one author states, "The pill may be a good idea, but the maximization of profits sought out by large drug companies, forced upon them by capitalistic ideals, precludes any real development of this form of contraception" (6). The monetary risks of the male birth control pill outweigh the benefits. Why would the large drug companies research a male contraceptive when they can make more profit from Viagra? This attitude not only reflects the economic priorities of drug companies, but social priorities as well. Research and funding is put into contraceptive methods for women and sexual rejuvenation for men. The social message is clear - women take care of birth control and men take care of sexual performance.

When compared to the adverse health effects of the female birth control pill, the male pill, especially Nifedipine, actually appears to be less dangerous. However, one of the main concerns for opponents of the male birth control pill is a decrease in libido. This is one of the less common side effects of Nifedipine (3). Health risks of the female birth control pill include headache, mood changes, depression, an increased risk of blood clots, pulmonary embolism, heart attack, and stroke (1). Yet neither the public nor the pharmaceutical industry seem to be seriously disturbed by these factors. Again, the double standard is clear.

Birth control is clearly an issue of sexual politics. The female birth control pill has undergone extensive research since it was first introduced in 1960. It is hailed as "an advance in social justice that is in keeping with democratic values" and an instrument of the "power of reproductive capacity" (1). It is true that the pill gave women the power of reproductive choice. However, the fact remains that society regards birth control as a woman's responsibility. I do not argue that the pill has not been beneficial to advancements in women's reproductive rights. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the freedom granted by the birth control pill is still within a patriarchal context. The promotion of research, effort and funding for the female birth control pill and lack of funding for the male version send a clear message; even within the freedoms of reproductive choice, women remain subject to society's assumptions about sex.

WWW Sources

1)"Four Decades of the Birth Control Pill"

2)"New Male Birth-Control Options May be on the Way"

3)"Research into Male Birth-Control Pill Hits Snag"

4)The Pharmaceutical Collection

5)Planned Parenthood Federation of America

6)"Progress in Male Chemistry"

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