A non-hormonal form of male birth control could be available on the U.S. market as soon as 2017, according to the latest update from the Parsemus Foundation, the organization working to develop the contraceptive. While the news is inspiring the latest round of hopeful headlines about the possibility that women soon won’t have to shoulder most of the responsibility for pregnancy prevention, an effective option for men is likely still a long way away.
The Parsemus Foundation has been testing Vasalgel — a one-time injection that prevents the vas deferens from releasing sperm — in preclinical trials as one of the first steps in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process. The organization says it’s “making great progress” in its tests on baboons, who have avoided pregnancy for six months. Parsemus just got a boost in funding from a big donor, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and hopes to begin a round of clinical trials on humans by next year.
Vasalgel is based on a similar procedure that’s being tested in India. Both involve blocking sperm with an injection of a liquid polymer, which can eventually be removed with a second injection that flushes it out. Reproductive rights proponents are optimistic about the technique, which may be especially attractive to men because it doesn’t involve manipulating testosterone. As of the beginning of this year, 18,000 men and women had signed up to be notified about when Vasalgel’s clinical trials begin.
The Parsemus Foundation’s update has sparked a lot of optimism about the future of contraceptive options, leading to several news stories proclaiming things like “Vasalgel could change reproductive health as we know it” and “the male birth control revolution may be upon us.”
It’s not uncommon, however, to hear sweeping promises about the male birth control that’s supposedly right around the corner. “The joke in the field is: The male pill’s been five to 10 years away for the last 30 years,” Dr. John Amory, a researcher at the University of Washington, told CNN back in 2010. Since then, there have been several rounds of excitement over different male contraceptives that are “just on the horizon.” Predictions that Vasalgel will hit the market in just three years are overly optimistic, considering the FDA’s rigorous approval process for new drugs.
Writing for the Daily Beast, Samantha Allen argues that the pharmaceutical industry is partly to blame for the fact that we’ve been waiting so long for a male version of the birth control pill. Long-term treatments like Vasalgel won’t be as profitable for them as the hormonal regimens that women have to take more frequently, so there’s not much funding available for these new ventures. In the absence of more institutional support, Parsemus has turned to crowdfunding and individual donors. “Why sell a flat-screen television to a man, after all, when you can rent one to a woman for a decade?” Allen points out.
Advocates see male birth control as a way to address the current gender gap in reproductive health services, arguing that men need to get more involved in pregnancy prevention efforts. Studies have found that doctors tend to talk about birth control options more often with their sexually active female patients than they do with sexually active teen boys. And campaigns to prevent teen pregnancy often solely target their messages to girls — who, if they do become pregnant, shoulder more of the blame for “failing” than their male partners do. Especially since many men resist wearing condoms even in cases when they want to avoid pregnancy, a different kind of effective male contraceptive could help shift some of those dynamics.
There are other gender disparities in treatments related to reproductive health, too. While men have been waiting for their own version of the pill, women have been waiting for their own version of Viagra. There’s still considerable controversy over whether it’s appropriate to pursue a pharmaceutical solution to enhance women’s sex drives, but at least some women’s groups have accused the FDA of “persistent gender bias” for dragging its feet in this area. They argue that regulators’ reluctance to approve “a little pink pill” suggests an implicit discomfort with women taking control over their sexuality.