Halted male birth control study says more about the study than it does about men

Courtesy of Flickr
Courtesy of Flickr

The range of male birth control options is rather abysmal when compared to birth control options for females. Women can choose between pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs), implants, diaphragms, shots, rings, sponges and patches — all of which are temporary and possess their own benefits and side effects. Meanwhile, men can either run to the store for a box of condoms or acquire a vasectomy. The latter, being permanent, is obviously not a feasible option for those who want children eventually.

Considering the large disparity between male and female birth control options, it’s not surprising that our society seems to place the responsibility of pregnancy prevention on women. This makes the development of a reliable and safe male contraceptive much more urgent as it would definitely be helpful in rectifying such an inequity.

However, attempts at male birth control have been unsuccessful either because of inadequate funding or unsatisfactory results. While a recent attempt at developing a temporary, hormonal contraceptive for men indicated promising results, it was halted prematurely because reportedly, a large portion of the subjects experienced increased acne, mood swings and soreness along with other negative symptoms.

People have been quick to react to this development, mostly by ridiculing men for complaining about side effects that women experience frequently from their own forms of birth control. Understandably, it does seem like it’s okay for women to experience adverse symptoms while it isn’t for men. It implies that men’s well-being is more important that women’s — at least in terms of contraception. However, we should be mindful of the fact that much mainstream coverage on this topic merely scratches the surface, and fails to depict the whole story.

First of all, it’s important to remember that what was halted was a clinical trial, which is necessary in order to determine if drugs are safe for public consumption. If a clinical trial for another sort of drug or medicine had to be halted because of significant negative side effects, the public would probably be more understanding. In fact, the public would probably never hear about it in the first place. Male contraception is a hot topic — and many news outlets profit off of sensationalism.

The study wasn’t halted because a couple of men griping about mood swings and acne. Almost half of the sample reported negative side effects, and one man committed suicide while another attempted it. Granted, the suicide couldn’t be decisively contributed to the treatment, but the other adverse effects occurred in higher rates than it did in female contraceptive studies.

Actually, female contraceptives — the pill in particular — yield benefits beyond pregnancy prevention. The pill is often prescribed to reduce acne, regulate periods or reduce painful period symptoms. This study however, reported no such positive effects for men.

Perhaps instead of highlighting the study’s participants, it’s better to focus on the study’s shortcomings. First of all, only 266 men completed the trial which makes up a rather small sample size. A small sample size makes results difficult to generalize to the rest of the population, and obviously makes the negative side effects seem more pronounced.

Furthermore, it seems as if the participants were not screened for mental illness beforehand. Such a measure is important in order to assess whether the treatment can lead to depression or other mental issues. The uncertainty surrounding the suicides is problematic, and it does make sense to halt the study as a safety precaution.

Additionally, the final results of the study show that certain men had difficulty producing fertile sperm once treatment ceased. So even though the study was halted because of the negative side effects, it wasn’t effective as a temporary form of contraception anyway.

So while it’s easy to point fingers and cry, “gender-bias!,” we should remember that there’s usually more to the story than what is reported. Despite the urgent need for a male contraceptive, human health and safety should still be the priority.

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