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Davis, California

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Male birth control

“I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!”

As I watched this Hunger Games scene on Netflix last weekend, tears streamed down my cheeks as my drama queen of a brain mourned Katniss’ plight.

But when I saw it in theaters a few months ago, I didn’t get emotional once. The only difference?

Birth control.

I’ve been experimenting with different forms of hormonal contraceptives lately, trying to find the magic method that doesn’t come with 12-day periods, excessive bloating or the tendency to choke up every time Sarah McLachlan decides to sing over an animal adoption PSA.

Despite my frustration, I suppose I should be thankful for hormonal birth control. It means I don’t need to drink the froth from a camel’s mouth like the women in ancient Africa, or wear weasel testicles around my thigh like the ladies of medieval Europe.

I shouldn’t take the availability of birth control in the U.S. for granted, either — the Comstock Act, a federal ban on contraceptives, was not lifted until 1938, and the Supreme Court did not grant unmarried couples the right to use birth control until fairly recently, in 1972.

By the 90s, women had plenty of options when it came to preventing pregnancy: IUDs, hormonal implants and injectables, low-dose pills, patches, vaginal rings and more.

Among all these new developments in contraception, it seems odd that no great strides have been made on the male side of birth control since the discovery of latex (and the invention of the modern condom) in the 1920s. Where’s the male “pill”?

There are two reasons for the delay: reproductive anatomy and money. While women only produce one egg a month, men turn out about 1,500 sperm per second. Women’s bodies also have periods of infertility, like pregnancy, which hormonal birth control can simulate. Men, on the other hand, are fertile 24/7.

Some attempts at a male “pill” have focused on hormones, like most female contraceptives. However, targeting testosterone in such a way has the unfortunate aesthetic side effect of testicular shrinkage.

Though some research focusing on non-hormonal solutions is underway, the lack of federal funding for male birth control trials has hindered any real progress. This is at least partially due to the availability of female hormonal contraceptives, paired with the archaic notion that pregnancy prevention is the woman’s responsibility.

However, according to Science Daily, about 70 percent of men would be willing to take a birth control pill if it were available.

One of the possible male birth control options on the horizon was recently discovered during cancer research. Qinglei Li, an assistant professor at Texas A&M, found a compound called JQ1. The compound inhibits both sperm production and sperm mobility in mice. What’s more, JQ1 does not seem to have any effect on long-term reproductive ability or health.

However, JQ1 is still in the early stages of research, and just because it works on mice does not mean it will be effective in humans. JQ1 could suffer the same fate as Zavesca, a potential male contraceptive that worked perfectly at inhibiting sperm production in mice a few years ago — until it was tested on humans. Turns out, the drug only worked on a particular strain of laboratory mice.

Gamedazole has come a bit farther. The drug is also sperm-inhibiting, and has been successfully tested on not only mice, but also rats, rabbits and nonhuman primates.

Even more exciting is Vasalgel, a polymer gel that’s injected into the vas deferens. When introduced to an activating agent, the gel solidifies into a sponge-like substance that allows the man to ejaculate, but filters the sperm from his semen. The procedure is also easily reversible, as the gel can be dissolved with a second injection.

Better yet, Vasalgel has been tested on humans with close to a 100 percent success rate in India. In the U.S., however, trials are still limited to nonhuman animals, and the system is not yet FDA-approved.

The prospect of more male birth control options is exciting, and a long time coming. Hopefully, the introduction of more reliable male contraceptives will level the cultural playing field in preventing unwanted pregnancy — and give girls like me a break from the mood swings.

MARISA MASSARA’s volatile hormones can be reached at mvmassara@ucdavis.edu.

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