Fifty years ago, the birth control pill revolutionized contraception—and promptly introduced a host of now-familiar side effects for women, among them decreased libido and increased risk of stroke. That men ought to share the burden is an old argument, one that—until recently—looked unwinnable. Today, however, promising research aimed at creating more convenient and effective forms of male contraception is reigniting the push for pre- and postcoital parity.
“After 40 years of research on male contraceptives,” Helen Cordes writes in Herizons (Spring 2010), “what’s clearer than ever is that male reproductive processes are just as easy to manipulate as—and sometimes easier than—women’s.”
Some of the most intriguing research involves nonhormonal methods. Reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance (RISUG), for example, requires a single injection of a substance that coats the vasa deferentia (which transport sperm in anticipation of ejaculation) for seven years; sperm still move freely but cannot fertilize an egg. Twenty-five years of studies in India have proven the technique effective in humans. In animal trials, a second injection of a different substance has succeeded in flushing out the tubes and restoring fertility. “RISUG is the most significant breakthrough in contraception since the birth control pill,” Ron Weiss, Canada’s top vasectomy doctor, told Cordes. The trials in India are now in phase three, the last step before the injection is approved, and advocates are trying to license RISUG for U.S. production.
Other nonhormonal methods under study include heat and ultrasound treatments. The latter warms the testes in a “comfortable, quick method,” Cordes explains. Researchers were inspired by a 1970s study in which 10- to 15-minute treatments rendered primates harmlessly infertile for up to six months.
Unfortunately, pharmaceutical giants would rather keep pouring cash into the proven $7 billion annual female contraceptive market. Which is why, Cordes argues, citizens need to get into the game, bringing male contraception into the public conversation and urging policy makers, health care providers, and scientists to pursue it.