Science, Now + Beyond

Men’s birth control trials were halted for the stupidest reason ever

Women suffer similar side effects from birth control but our pain has been historically undervalued by the medical community.

“It makes more sense to unload a gun than to wear a bullet proof vest,” is a pretty popular saying among proponents of male contraception. The idea is that it’s more efficient to limit male sperm release than to prevent female pregnancy once sperm has entered the scene. Just this week, we heard news of a highly effective male contraceptive shot that could have changed the game for men’s and women’s sexual health. But just as quickly as that option became a possibility, it was taken away.

A study of the male contraceptive injection, co-sponsored by the United Nations, was published last Thursday in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. The study tested a hormonal injection of testosterone and norethisterone enanthate (a fancy version of progesterone and estrogen) on 320 fertile men to record its effects on decreasing sperm count. The idea behind the injection is very much about “unloading the gun.” In an interview with CNN, Dr. Seth Cohen, a urologist at NYU Lagone Medical Center explained, “basically, the brain assumes the body is getting enough” testosterone when a man receives an injection like the Male Contraceptive Injection and then the body ceases testosterone production like “the testicle’s production of testosterone as well as the testicle’s production of sperm.”

Remarkably, the injection was 96% effective as a contraceptive–making it an awesome alternative to birth control pills or even condoms (though it does not prevent against STDs).

So, what’s the problem?

However, 20 of the participating men reported that the injection’s side-effects were unbearable, halting the trial. What side effects? Depression and mood swings, acne, muscle pain, injection-site pain, and libido changes. Upon hearing this news, many women became outraged that men couldn’t seem to put up with side effects that are highly common among female birth control users as well.

This news is particularly troubling to women for two main reasons: women’s pain has historically been undervalued by the medical community and women suffer similar side effects from birth control.

If you’re a woman who’s ever visited a doctor’s office or been in pain, you know that our pain is often undervalued. I mean, cramps can be so excruciating that they land women in the ER, yet we’re supposed to go about our days as though everything’s fine. It turns out that this experience of pain is not just anecdotal, but supported by scientific research.

Research shows women with the same abdominal pain as men are likely to wait 65 minutes in ERs as compared with men’s 49. Further, women are less likely to be prescribed painkillers and more likely to be diagnosed with mental illnesses (I mean, women are just “emotional, right?) than male counterparts. All this taken into account, it’s no surprise that men’s reactions to birth control side effects would be taken more seriously than women’s.

Because female pain is undervalued, little research has actually been done on birth control’s side effects among women. When the JAMA Psychiatry journal broke the news that female birth control causes similar side effects like depression and mood swings, women were like “…duh?”. I mean, this wasn’t exactly news to us, but it did remind the world that we aren’t just “crazy, irrational, and emotional” creatures.

Kinsey Institute faculty scholar and Indiana University Bloomington professor of biology and philosophy Elisabeth Lloyd emphasized the difference between men’s and women’s treatment: “Twenty percent or 30% of the women who take oral birth control pills experience depression and have to take medication for it.” said Lloyd. Yet, the Male Contraceptive Injection researchers “terminated this study once it showed 3% depression for the men.”

All that’s not to say that men should have to put up with the side effects of the Male Contraceptive Injection. But if they shouldn’t, neither should we. If you’re a women who takes birth control, the announcement of these side effects likely didn’t surprise you — because those are the same side effects women have faced since the 1960s. We can all agree that safe methods of birth control are a must, but shouldn’t that level of safety be the same between women and men? If men shouldn’t be expected to deal with those side effects, neither should women.