Male contraceptive study sparks conversation about responsibility, gender roles

Male contraceptive study sparks conversation about responsibility, gender roles

UC Davis clinical trial launched in June of 2020 could offer a revolutionary contraceptive method for men

Birth control and pregnancy prevention has mostly been considered a responsibility of women in the past, and many people have wondered: Why? Today, the only available methods of birth control for men are condoms and vasectomies; there is no approved hormonal equivalent to the birth control pill. 

However, UC Davis launched a two-year long clinical trial in June of 2020 that is a step toward developing a contraceptive for men that is both reversible and effective. The study tests a gel, which is released from a metered pump and is applied by users daily to their shoulders. 

Dr. Mitchell Creinin, the principal investigator at the UC Davis site for this trial, explained that the way the gel works is similar to the female birth control pill. The pill includes two hormones, estrogen and progestin. Progestin prevents pregnancy, but it also prevents the creation of estrogen, so estrogen has to be added back into the female body to allow it to function normally. Similarly, the male contraceptive includes progestin and testosterone for the same reason, though it takes more time to be effective than the birth control pill. 

The study, which is to be conducted over two years, includes four stages: screening, suppression, efficacy and recovery. After a couple enrolled goes through a screening phase, where they receive all of the information about how the gel works and what will be expected of them, the man begins the suppression phase, which Creinin describes as an “emptying” of sperm storage.

“So [the testis] is making sperm all the time and right above the testis is an organ called the epididymis, and I will explain it to people who are enrolling in the study to think of it like a big Amazon storage facility,” Creinin said. “The testis is making sperm all the time and dumping it into the storage facility. So for a woman, if you start using a birth control pill and it shuts down the ovary, you will stop making an egg, boom, you’re done, it works right away. For a man, […] you have to empty out the storage facility first. So that’s why it takes a few months to get the counts all the way down.” 

As Creinin explained, the extra time that it takes for the gel to take effect is inevitable. 

Even with the additional time that it takes to take effect, Creinin said that the creation of a male contraceptive other than condoms and vasectomies is extremely important for societies across the world.

“This is an important step in furthering people’s ability to control their fertility when desired,” Ceinan said. “Having a male contraceptive that is reversible, that provides greater efficacy than a condom, is an important contribution to society.”

Eve Banas, a third-year evolution, ecology and biodiversity major and the president of the Students for Reproductive Freedom at UC Davis, agrees. In a recent Zoom discussion, the club addressed the topic of birth control and it’s past, present and future, which includes male contraceptives. Banas said that as the study was taking place at Davis, she was interested in discussing it with the club. Other members were also intrigued by the idea, and Banas said that they were largely in favor of this new development. 

“Male birth control isn’t something that is approved anywhere,” Banas said. “We were just kind of interested in talking a bit about why we thought that was and what institutions were blocking that from happening in the past, when there are so many forms of female contraceptives.”

During the meeting, the club discussed what reasons they felt were preventing male birth control from being developed in the past. Many trials of male birth control have been stopped due to side effects, which Banas said members pointed out were similar to side effects women commonly experience while taking various contraceptives. She also said that pharmaceutical investment plays a big role in whether or not these options are explored. 

“So a lot of these different forms of contraceptives, and different things and reproductive reproductive health in general, don’t end up being followed through with just because the foreign pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in investing in a lot of things that would benefit women,” Banas said. “I know this isn’t true all the time, but it has historically been the case. If UC Davis is successful in this trial and other trials are successful, this will show that there is interest in male contraceptives and that will help get more funding for this, which will hopefully let it be released on a wider scale.”

Banas said that members of the club expressed a sense that creation of more options and widely available male contraceptives would ultimately benefit women. 

“We felt like it would further women’s rights in a lot of ways just because it takes some of the pressure off of people to take birth control, especially if it’s something that doesn’t react well with their body,” Banas said. “I think more options are better, especially with health care, things like that, just to reach a wider array of people.”

Creinin agrees, saying that his vision is to make pregnancy prevention a responsibility of both people in the future.

“I really see the future as being something where both [people] can participate,” Creinin said. “The man is using his hormonal gel and a woman is using her birth control pill, the likelihood that they as a couple will get pregnant, when they don’t want to be pregnant, is going to be incredibly low. Typically pregnancy occurs because of two people, so if both people are taking an active part in preventing pregnancy with methods that are both effective […] it can help The couple [can] have better control over whether a pregnancy occurs or not.”

Both Creinin and Banas expressed that the creation of this effective and reversible male contraceptive begins to more evenly distribute the responsibility for men and women in preventing pregnancy, which has been primarily the women’s responsibility. Creinin said that he hopes this can be a step in changing the way that we as a society look at and assign the responsibility of preventing pregnancy.

“I think this really changes the dogma, or has the potential to change the dogma of, well, the woman gets pregnant, she takes care of it,” Creinin said. “The man gets off scot free, he just gets to have sex and smile and not worry about anything. That’s not really how it should be.”
Written by: Katie DeBenedetti — features@theaggie.org