Advances in Male Contraception

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Birth control for men? Promising alternatives are on the horizon, mostly awaiting funding for further research. See what may lie ahead in family planning.

For about as long as birth control has been around, the responsibility for choosing and implementing a contraceptive method has rested mostly on female shoulders. Witness the following. Ancient Egyptian women, according to some reports, used a sort of vaginal suppository that may have prevented conception. There is evidence that Asian women long ago employed oiled paper to act as a cervical cap. The first intrauterine device (IUD) appeared very early in the 20th century. You know the story from there: lots of contraceptive choices for women, none of them perfect.

For men, though, contraceptive options have not changed much over the decades. There’s the condom (effective, mostly, when used correctly, but cumbersome and inconvenient), the vasectomy (not always reversible—and, oh, the swelling), and withdrawal (unreliable at best).

With new advances on the horizon, men might finally get a chance to participate more actively in contraception. And while the generally held belief is that men are about as interested in contraception as women are in trying on bikinis under fluorescent lighting, research begs to differ. A recent study found that over 60 percent of men in Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Mexico were willing to use a new method of male contraception. And anecdotal evidence concurs. “As far as I’m concerned, contraception is a two-way street, and not the responsibility of one partner,” says Doug Williams, a 38-year-old telecommunications analyst in Marblehead, Mass., and father of twin five-year-old boys. “While I hesitate at the idea of a vasectomy, I would also expect any woman to hesitate at the thought of tubal ligation.”

The need for reliable male contraception, of course, goes far beyond the desire to control when (or if) to have children in privileged countries. “In many countries, one in seven women dies in childbirth. We know that birth spacing could keep many of those women alive. Yet we delude ourselves by thinking that condoms are enough,” says Elaine Lissner, founder and director of the San Francisco-based Male Contraception Information Project.

To that end, the scientific community has been hard at work researching new male contraceptive methods. “Several new methods are waiting in the wings, but research has been painfully slow because funding has been too tight,” says Lissner. “Now with the Gates Foundation recognizing the importance of user-friendly contraceptives in global health, things could take off.”

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