Washington Researchers Attempt to Develop Controversial 'Pill for Men'

SEATTLE—Supporters herald it as a means of reducing unintended pregnancy and abortion, and a way to increase responsible sexual behavior. Critics say it will do just the opposite on all counts.

The pill for men is currently in development by a team at the University of Washington. The debate it has raised is an echo of the controversy over another more famous pill—the one for women that unleashed the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.

The pill for men works in a way analogous to the pill for women. It contains enough testosterone to trick a man's body into thinking it doesn't need to produce its own testosterone. When the body stops producing testosterone, it also stops producing sperm. The pill also contains progestin to increase the pill's effectiveness to about the same rate as that of the pill for women.

Dr. John Amory, one of the lead researchers on the project, said the primary goal is to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion.

“If you look at the United States, where contraception is widely available although not paid for by some insurance, there are 6 million pregnancies a year in the United States,” he said. “Three million of those … are unplanned. Half of the unplanned pregnancies end in abortion—so that's why there are a million to a million-and-a-half abortions every year in the United States.”

But pro-lifers—especially Catholic pro-lifers—say contraception is actually the root cause of abortion, not the solution to the problem. Widely available contraception, they say, creates a “contraceptive mentality” that leads to irresponsible sexual behavior.

The argument is that contraception, which is never 100% effective, causes a dramatic increase in sex outside of marriage. When pregnancy results, due to inevitable contraceptive failures or inconsistent use, the partners are inclined to feel they are not responsible for it. Abortion, therefore, is a much more tempting “solution” to the problem.

“The current contraceptives only contribute to unintended pregnancy and abortion,” said Janet Smith, visiting professor of life issues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “Why would one expect this new one to be different?”

“When women who are using contraceptives get pregnant, they are more likely to treat the pregnancy as an accident and not their responsibility,” she continued. “Males who generally take less personal responsibility for pregnancies are likely to be even more inclined to say that they have no responsibility if they were taking a pill.”

Amory cited statistics on the relatively small rate of abortions among teen-agers in the Netherlands, where he said contraception is promoted more thoroughly, as evidence that contraception does in fact reduce the rate of abortion.

Side Effects

The pill for men also raises medical issues comparable to those surrounding the pill for women. Supporters of the pill for women say it reduces the risk of ovarian and uterine cancers, while critics say it increases the risk of breast cancer.

Amory said that while the long-term effects of the pill for men cannot be known at this point, he has reason to hope it will reduce the risk of testicular and prostate cancer.

“Since prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death among men,” he said, “anything that would impact on the rate … would be a huge life-saver.”

Dr. Chris Kahlenborn, a specialist in internal medicine in Altoona, Pa., and founder of The Polycarp Research Institute, said the pill for men could actually cause problems with the prostate.

“Testosterone supplementation is not without risk,” he added. “It can inflame your liver and cause feminization of the breast—that is, gynecomastia. I do not know too many men who welcome those side effects.”

Amory said potential short-term side effects are an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in fat mass; a slight increase in acne in some men; and a 10 % decrease in high-density lipoprotein (a “good cholesterol,” which helps prevent heart disease).

The first reaction of most people to the notion of a contraceptive pill for men is to doubt whether many men would be at all interested. Amory said research indicates that many men would in fact be open to the idea.

Steve Koob, co-founder of One More Soul, a Dayton, Ohio, educational organization focused on “the blessings of children and the harms of contraception,” has mixed feelings on whether men would be interested.

“I just think it's going to be a difficult sell to the male population, to destroy their manhood,” he said. “Of course, they've kind of done that by expecting their wives or girlfriends to be infertile. The manly thing, you would think, would be to co-create children, but for some reason it's not [seen that way].”

The Catholic Church teaches that the purpose of sex is the union of the spouses and the procreation of children, and any action that deliberately destroys one of these elements is sinful. Whenever couples choose to express their love in sexual intercourse, the Church says, they must be open to the possibility of children.

In the 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), Pope Paul VI warned that contraception would lead to a decrease in reverence for women.

“A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods,” the Pope said, “may forget the reverence due to a woman and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.”

Smith argues that men in our culture often suffer from a serious lack of sexual self-control and a contraceptive pill for them would only make the problem worse by removing sexual activity further from its inherent meanings of union and procreation.

“These pills will simply serve all the more to reduce the meaning of sexual intercourse,” she said.

“I have heard men say that there is a world of difference between contracepted acts of sexual intercourse and meaningful acts of marital lovemaking,” she continued. “Those who reserve sexual intercourse to marital lovemaking in a non-contraceptive way are remarkably more in control of their sexual desires, considerably more likely to be in stable, loving marriages, and thus happier.”

David Curtin writes from Toronto.