Last year I reported here on research into a male contraceptive pill that seemed to show promise. It was developed in Israel by Dr. Haim Breitbart and had proven successful when used in mice. It was able to render the mice temporarily sterile while not inhibiting libido. Once the mice were taken off the pill, they began producing sperm capable of fertilizing an egg.
I’ve checked to see if there have been any developments since then and apparently Breitbart intends to begin experiments with primate males. He hopes a male birth control pill could pass governmental muster and be on the market within five years.
Breitbart’s pill would inhibit the production of a protein in sperm cells rendering them incapable of fertilization. As such, it’s non-hormonal and therefore less likely to produce side effects than would be a hormone-based pill. Also, a single pill has been shown in the laboratory to render mice sterile for as long as three months at a time.
So at this early stage, it looks to be easy to use, highly effective and safe. Perhaps best of all, it can be taken in private, so men would for the first time be able to control their own fertility for themselves, by themselves.
Now there’s another approach to a male contraceptive pill that sounds equally effective, but probably not equally risk-free. Here’s an article about it (YahooNews, 6/4/11).
The new pill is being developed at Columbia University. Its modus operandi is to interfere with the reception of Vitamin A by cell receptors. That in turn would prevent the production of sperm in the testes because those receptors “initiate the expression of genes necessary for the creation of sperm.”
“The long and short of what we know is vitamin A and its metabolite are absolutely essential for the production of male germ cells, or sperm,” she said.
Like the Breitbart pill, the new pill causes no drop in testosterone levels and sperm production returns after the pill is discontinued.
But of course when you inhibit the body’s ability to use Vitamin A in the testes, you inhibit it elsewhere, and that could easily create unwanted side-effects.
Dr. John Amory of the University of Washington addressed that concern this way:
Even though side effects have yet to show up in their work with the compound, he said: “The concern I have as a clinician about their approach is retinoic acid has multiple functions in multiple tissues so blocking the activity by blocking the receptor, I have concerns that could cause side effects.”
As things stand now, men have three ways to prevent conception. They can abstain from sex, have a vasectomy or use a condom. Only the vasectomy is confidential; the other two are known to partners and potential partners.
So a safe effective male pill is necessary for men to have the type of control over their fertility that women have. Such a pill would have the ability to place in the hands of men – not women – the decision to father a child or not. In so doing it would hold the promise of less paternity fraud and fewer instances of unwanted (by the father) children.
Currently, if a woman doesn’t want children, she can take the pill or use any of a number of other contraceptive options. If she does want children, she can refrain from using contraception. Whichever decision she makes, she can keep her partner ignorant of it. So if he doesn’t want a child and she does, she can surprise him. It’s not a rare phenomenon.
As I’ve said before, whether the two have a child or not is almost entirely in her hands. A safe, effective male contraceptive pill would place the decision about fathering a child where it needs to be – in the hands of the man.
Whether men would use it is another question entirely. As I reported in my piece on the Breitbart pill, surveys show that women in the U.S. know about the pill and other contraceptive devices and how to use them, but often don’t. When asked whether they wanted children, many couples said “no.” But when asked if they were taking precautions to prevent pregnancy, the answer was the same.
Incongruous as that may be, it indicates a certain indifference to childbearing that confounds notions about contraception. What it also does is suggest that, if men get a safe, effective pill, it may not make a lot of difference to decisions about childbearing. Still, many men will use it and that alone will be a great leap forward in men’s ability to control their own decisions about paternity.
Thanks to John for the heads-up.