By: Kasey Kirkup
Graphics by Christophe Young
Birth control pills have been a female-centred form of contraception since its creation in the 1960s, but recent studies are being conducted on two new birth control methods for men.
“A male contraceptive could change things between men and women. It might turn birth control into a shared responsibility, where it’s been a sole responsibility largely of women for the last 60 years,” said physician and medical columnist Brian Goldman on his CBC Radio show White Coat, Black Art.
What is birth control?
According to Planned Parenthood, birth control allows individuals to prevent pregnancy and plan the timing of it. Birth control, with the exception of condoms, does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Female birth control
For women, there are over a dozen different birth control methods such as the birth control pill, intrauterine device (IUD), the patch, the NuvaRing, and many others, according to Carleton’s “Sex and U” website.
“The pill is the most common one because it has been on the market for a longer time, however the IUD is getting really popular and the reason for this is because you can have it inside the uterus for five years,” said Mathieu Mercier, a nurse at the Ottawa Sexual Health Centre.
According to Planned Parenthood, an IUD is a tiny, T-shaped device that is inserted into the uterus by a healthcare professional. It works by changing the way the sperm move so that they cannot reach the egg.
More long-term contraceptive methods, like the IUD, are becoming popular so that women and their partners do not have to worry about the risk of pregnancy on a daily basis, nor do they have to be reminded to take a pill every day, according to Mercier.
Male birth control
For men, the new male birth control methods are still undergoing testing. The only current form of male birth control on the Canadian market is the condom, which is used for STI and pregnancy prevention. However, the condom is not the preferred choice for a lot of men, particularly if their partner is already using birth control.
According to Planned Parenthood, condoms are 98 per cent effective if used perfectly each time, but in reality they are 82 per cent effective because condoms are not always used correctly. Birth control pills on the other hand, are 91-98 per cent effective, depending on if the pills are taken every day like directed or not.
Harrison Lewis, a first-year humanities student at Carleton University said that there are risks involved when using condoms. “I would be more than happy to use [a new male birth control method], or at least to try it. It seems like the most reliable way for me to prevent having an unwanted child.”
According to the Parsemus Foundation, a medical research organization, a new male birth control method called Vasalgel is in development. It is a non-hormonal scrotum injection that will be a long-term method of contraception. Vasalgel is a polymer hydrogel that is injected into the vas deferens (the tube the sperm swim through)—blocking the sperm and preventing pregnancy. The drug is still undergoing animal testing, product qualification, and safety testing, with human trials expected to begin early 2017.
According to a research study conducted by five countries and the World Health Organization, another new male contraceptive method is being tested. This method involves using a needle injection that is a mixture of a long acting progesterone called norethisterone enanthate.
“The progesterone gets the pituitary, the so-called master gland, to switch off sperm production. But shutting down the pituitary also reduces levels of the male hormone testosterone, which is necessary for well-being. The testosterone injection is supposed to counteract that effect,” Goldman said on White Coat, Black Art.
“When the birth control pill came out for women back in the day… the STI rates actually bounced up because people were protected against pregnancy so they weren’t necessarily worried for pregnancy, but they completely forgot the question of the STIs was still in the equation. “
274 men achieved a low sperm count after taking the drug, and only four members’ sexual activity resulted in pregnancy
Side effects and risks
According to Mercier, the side-effects and risks are normal for both female and the new male birth control methods. Because birth control methods for women have been on the market for decades, the side-effects are known to a greater degree.
“Anytime that you tamper with hormone levels it’s going to have mood and weight effects, that’s just how our bodies work,” said Sydney Schneider, the programming co-ordinator for Carleton University Students’ Association Womyn’s Centre.
Mercier said that side-effects are often associated with birth control methods due to the hormone shift.
“A lot of the times they will experience mood swings associated with hormone side-effects, nausea, headaches, and breast tenderness because of the hormonal side-effects,” he said.
Mercier said he believes birth control methods are safe.
“[A woman’s] body is getting adjusted to a boost of hormones. They’re pretty safe medications but there’s some side-effects to it,” he said.
For the new male birth control methods, involving a needle injection, researchers have noted side effects such as muscle pain, acne, mood swings and weight gain. As a result, some men decided to opt out of the study all together, according to Goldman on his radio show, White Coat, Black Art.
Iain MacDonald, a first-year management student at the University of Ottawa, said that at this stage in the research, it is too soon for him to want to use a new male birth control method.
“I am not against male birth control, however I would not use it yet, as it is still severely under researched in my opinion,” MacDonald said.
How you can protect yourself from STIs
While the prospect of a new male birth control method is promising, Mercier said there is a worry for the potential of an increase in STIs caused by decreased use of condoms.
“When the birth control pill came out for women back in the day, that was one of the concerns. The STI rates actually bounced up because people were protected against pregnancy so they weren’t necessarily worried for pregnancy, but they completely forgot the question of the STIs was still in the equation,” Mercier said.
According to Mercier, the best way to prevent STIs is to continue to be careful and make consistent use of condoms.
“Make sure you’re actually using it properly in every sexual contact setting, which includes vaginal contact, anal contact, and oral contact as well,” Mercier said.
Accessing birth control on campus
CUSA’s Womyn’s Centre provides condoms, dental dams, and other barrier methods for contraception. Since the centre is student-run, they are unable to provide hormonal methods such as the pill, IUD, or Depro-Provera shot.
Carleton’s Health and Counselling Services, however, can assist if students are looking for something more long-term.
“Students can book an appointment with a doctor to discuss their options. Some forms are by prescription, and some available directly from a pharmacy,” said Patty Allen, a nurse for Carleton’s Health and Counselling Services.
Allen said students should take a look at the “Sex and U” website for more information on the more than 12 different types of contraceptive methods, as well as their advantages and disadvantages.
What could male birth control mean for sexual health?
As for the current prospect of implementing one of the new methods in Canada, Anna Maddison, the media relations advisor for Health Canada, said the companies would have to file a “Medical Device Licence Application.”
This application includes results from research studies, details of production, and packaging details. Maddison said Health Canada then completes a review of the drug to assess its safety, effectiveness, and quality. This all must occur before it can be sold legally in Canada.
Time and research will be the deciding factors indicating whether new male birth control methods will make it through testing and into the Canadian market – but it is creating a dialogue amongst partners as to who should be responsible for contraception and sexual health, as well as informing people about sexual health in general, according to Schneider.
“It would be really great to have a male form of hormonal birth control because the onus shouldn’t be completely on people with child bearing bodies to take birth control and fund birth control, because it can be quite expensive,” she said.