Birth Control Pill for Men Is Due Soon
Catholics raise objections, both physical and moral, to development
by GREG CHESMORE
If researchers from the United States and Italy have their way, soon women won't be the only ones popping pills to avoid bearing children. A new contraceptive pill for men is being tested and applauded by many in the scientific community as a “breakthrough” in reproductive health care. The only study with human beings as research subjects was conducted in Italy in 1996. That study focused on eight men who took two pills, twice daily for 16 weeks. The pills contain a synthetic hormone called Cyproterone, which is similar to the female hormone progesterone. The hormone inhibits the production of testosterone and blocks sperm production.
In the Italian study, the sperm count of one of the men was reduced to zero, while sperm counts of the remaining men fell to levels low enough to be considered “infertile.” Immediately after the small study, researchers called the results “hopeful” and expressed their intention to have a “male pill” on the market as soon as possible.
Currently the only form of contraceptive available to men is the condom, although sterilization by means of vasectomy remains popular. Increasing the availability of contraceptive choices for men-“relieving” women of the primary burden of family planning - are cited as driving forces for the male pill research.
Earlier attempts to develop chemical methods of male contraceptives have run into major problems such as long-lasting side effects. In addition to a pill, researchers released another study in 1996 that involved a weekly injection to inhibit sperm production. The technique involved injecting testosterone into the muscle, producing a hormone overload and causing the testicles to stop testosterone production. The result was a cessation of sperm production.
Side effects of this method have included severe acne, weight gain, decreased sex drive, impotence, and long-term infertility. Similar side effects are feared with the male pill.
The research surrounding the development of a male pill is supported by a wide variety of institutions - including the U.S. government. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a call for researchers to explore the development of a male pill. The Contraceptive Development Branch of the Center for Population Research and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (both branches of the NIH) offered federal grants to researchers to study the “design, synthesis, and testing of male contraceptive agents that inhibit testicular sperm development.”
One of the NIH grant recipients was the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) of North Carolina. Researchers at RTI developed and tested new compounds that made rats and mice infertile, without affecting mating behavior. The results of the study, which researchers found promising because sperm levels were lowered without affecting sex drive, were published in a 1995 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. The success of these experiments on rats and mice prompted similar experiments on human beings.
One of the researchers studying the male pill is William Bremner, a researcher at the University of Washington and Veterans Medical Center in Seattle, who helped conduct
the Italian study. Bremner hailed the results of the study, but stressed that obstacles to a male pill remain, including side effects and lack of interest on the part of pharmaceutical companies.
While researchers claim that their main objective is to offer men more choices in contraception, Bremner is not shy about another goal-population control.
“I think it's important [the study results] but I wouldn't want to make it sound like it's the cure to the population problem,” he told The Washington Post after results of the Italian study were released.
Bremner and other researchers are hopeful that a pharmaceutical company will be found to produce the male pill.
However, the potential for lawsuits is frightening many pharmaceutical companies away, meaning the marketing of the pill may be several years away.
Researchers also fear that men will reject the notion of daily pills or injections. To relieve those fears, they plan to conduct larger studies of a male pill that would last several months.
Even with the hurdles, researchers remain optimistic that men may soon be able to chemically alter their bodies to stop their sperm production.
“It's a hopeful finding, and encouraging to try to work to improve the techniques,” Bremner said.
The male pill is not without detractors, however. Judy Pittack, education program director at the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Neb., warned that the new pill will come with many side effects-both physical and moral. In addition to the physical side effects, which Pittack claims will be similar to the negative side effects associated with a vasectomy, she also fears a male pill will further erode the bond between man and woman.
“There are procreative and unitive qualities to the marriage bond,” she said, referring to the teaching of Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae (On Human Life). “Intercourse is the most personal commitment of a man and a woman. If you're going to come at it from a playboy mentality, treating intercourse as a form of play, you're looking at your partner as a play thing.”
Pittack, who is an instructor of the Creighton method of Natural Family Planning, said that artificial contraception attacks the sanctity of marriage and sexuality.
“Your partner should be seen as a source of continued or new human life,” she said. “When you shut down that life-giving quality by medication, barrier, or surgery you are literally taking the spark of life out of the relationship.”
Pittack believes few men will accept the pill as a contraceptive option. Most men see family planning as a woman's responsibility, she said. She also predicted that many men would be concerned about what the pill will do to their “maleness.”
Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Ind.
- January 25, 1998