Nonfiction

The Man Pill

31 October 2013

High school sex ed usually involves an encyclopaedia of contraceptive options for women, and a single message for men—suit up or face the consequences. But it’s not long until teenage boys get just as many confusing contraceptive options as their female counterparts.

The female contraceptive pill is so lauded as a hallmark of women’s sexual liberation that people don’t realise it’s a drug like any other. And, like most drugs, it has a shopping list of side effects.

For me, it is a veritable cocktail of poisonous hormones. On it, I become belligerent and jittery (more so than usual). My glands swell up, I’m constantly assailed by colds and skin infections, I’m nauseated by the smell or taste of certain foods, and watching—even thinking about—RSPCA commercials makes me cry ugly, ugly tears.

Mostly, my aversion to female hormonal contraception leaves me desiring an alternative.

Unfortunately, at the moment there aren’t any certifiably ‘safe’ alternatives. The good ol’ rubber has been getting bad press lately for its 18% failure rate. The ‘Catholic’ aka ‘rhythm method’ of contraception has been compared to playing Russian Roulette with the uterus. The copper IUD (intrauterine device) looks like something dreamed up by the directors of Saw.

Naturally, then, I did a double take when I read an article in Wired about an innovative new procedure called RISUG. Supposedly a “safe, effective and reversible” method of contraception with no reported side effects, RISUG is revolutionary because it’s designed to incapacitate the sperm themselves, unlike most current birth control methods, which seek to prevent sperm fertilising the egg. It’s a contraceptive for men.

RISUG is a clunky acronym that stands for Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance. This is meant to describe a process by which a non-toxic substance is injected into the vas deferens, which incapacitates passing sperm. In other words, it’s a procedure that makes all the little human-fish hanging out inside the testicles so drunk that all they do is swim around in circles slurring ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and forget about the egg-fertilising they were meant to be doing. Thankfully, should one want to conceive their own darling little human at some point down the line, all that is required is a second injection to the vas deferens in order to reverse the process.

RISUG has received good press so far. Ronald Weiss, a leading Canadian vasectomy surgeon and a member of a World Health Organization, claims “it holds tremendous promise” and could potentially eradicate the need to perform vasectomies.

Still, Weiss would do well not to put all his eggs in one basket. This is not the first time that a simple, affordable and safe method of male contraception has blipped on the public radar, only to disappear shortly thereafter.

Last year, scientists contemplated the use of an orally administered drug containing a molecule called JQ1. This male contraceptive pill would have allowed the molecule to bind with a protein called BRDT in the cells where sperm is produced. JQ1 would disrupt its normal function and ultimately preventing sperm cells from maturing. So far, it hasn’t managed get clearance for the next stage of clinical trials.

Similar male oral contraceptives were developed last decade, only to have their clinical testing peter out into nothingness when minor side effects such as “nausea” and “depression” were observed in test subjects. Nausea and depression are well-documented side effects of female hormonal contraceptives. Nevertheless, enduring such side effects is considered not to be in the male patient’s best interests. The reasoning goes, as men are not in possession of child-bearing organs, contraceptives taken by men do not directly mitigate the health risks associated with pregnancy in women, but do pose a threat to a man’s overall health. Seemingly, there is a double standard with regards to the ethics and marketing of a male contraceptive. It gets even more complicated when taking into account divisive attitudes of what constitutes ‘control’ over a woman’s body.

On one hand, it can be argued that having women bear the brunt of reproductive responsibility is a symptom of a sexist society’s cultural control over the female body. An article in The Village Voice puts an ironic twist on the risks to which women expose themselves through making the commonplace decision to take a form of birth control. They imagine a similar scenario for a young man.

“Choose one of the fine methods available to the modern husband. One widely used method is the insertion of sperm-killing liquid into the urethra before intercourse … The other widely used method is of course the Capsule … There are minor un-desirable side-effects in some men: you may gain weight around the abdomen or buttocks, get white pigmentless patches on your face (which you may be able to conceal with beard or face-bronzer) …”

On the other hand, the sharing of reproductive responsibility is disconcerting from the point of view that it potentially obstructs a woman’s potential to be fully aware and in control of her fertility.

Though a male contraceptive might eradicate the need for women to endure side-effects of the contraceptive pill, there is no real way of telling if your male partner is taking contraception or not. I can’t help but wonder to myself whether or not this a fair trade-off for peace of mind. Side effects or no side effects, the last thing I want to do is to have to play guessing-games with potential pregnancy.


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