What is impeding the development of the male contraceptive pill?

When the female contraceptive pill was first developed in the 1960s, the discussion surrounding women’s reproductive health irrevocably changed. Suddenly, women had an unprecedented level of self-government, and were free to participate in the sexual revolution. But shifting modern perspectives of female sexuality have raised questions about the burden of responsibility when it comes to contraception: do men have an equal obligation to use effective birth control, or is this primarily a female concern? And when, if ever, will the male version of the revolutionary contraceptive pill hit the market?

There are currently birth control options for the male reproductive system, but these are limited exclusively to condoms and vasectomies. The notion of a small, safe, daily pill seems almost utopian in comparison to these somewhat antiquated choices. So, why are we still waiting for the male contraceptive pill?

The generally touted answer is that both men and women are unwilling to entrust or burden the male population with the responsibility of regulating their own contraception. Many women have voiced concerns that their male partners could easily lie about being on contraception, or would invariably fail to remember to take a pill every day. This last point is perhaps the most salient, as studies have shown that 70 out of 134 women worry that their male partners would forget to take a daily pill. Despite the enormous benefits of this easy form of birth control, women simply do not trust their male counterparts to take their pills.

Whilst it is true that men would not suffer the nine-month consequences of failing to take the pill correctly, it would be a mistake to suggest that this is the reason behind the snail’s pace progress in developing male contraception. Regardless of what their female partners may believe, research has shown that a significant portion of sexually active men would consider, and indeed are keen, to use a daily pill. In a 2018 YouGov poll, 33% of male participants reported that they would at least consider taking the pill if it was on the market.

This surprising statistic may bust the myth of a lack of demand for male birth control; indeed researchers have instead pointed to the pharmaceutical industry as the real culprit behind its frustratingly slow development.

“I think that industry has not been convinced about the potential market,” says Professor Richard Anderson from the University of Edinburgh, “It’s certainly been a long story – part of it is lack of investment.”

The issue is not a cultural apathy towards male birth control, but instead an industry-wide disregard of a seemingly non-profitable venture. The perceived societal unpalatability of the male contraceptive pill has convinced investors to withhold their funding, which in turn has stunted its development.

As a result of this underfunding, the male pill remains languishing in its testing stages, and many prospective male pill users are still concerned about potentially nasty side effects. Sceptics often cite a slew of pseudo-science about obliterated sex drives, mood disorders and dreaded erectile dysfunctions. However, a recent study at the University of Washington found that the side effects were few and, when present, invariably mild. Although further testing needs to be done, researchers are confident that a safe, effective and affordable male pill is only years away.

Yet the fact remains that this area of research is chronically underfunded, mostly relying on charitable donations in order to fund necessary studies. Allan Pacey, from the University of Sheffield, agrees that:

“Unfortunately, so far, there has been very little pharmaceutical company interest in bringing a male contraceptive pill to the market, for reasons that I don’t fully understand but I suspect are more down to business than science.”

Considering that the U.S. has enforced over 90 legislative abortion restrictions in 2021, more than any previous year in history, the question of shared responsibility when it comes to contraception is more important than ever. Both men and women deserve access to an effective daily pill, but the industry’s pervasive concern over its financial viability continues to hinder scientific development, making it hard to estimate when – if ever – a male contraceptive pill will become available.

Anna Wilmot