After starring as a pregnant man in the 1994 film, Junior, Arnold Schwartzenegger won the gubernatorial race in California in 2003. Maybe seeing Arnold fat with child on the big screen won over some supporters who couldn’t warm up to him as the Terminator. In any event, when Junior came out 16 years ago, not only did the idea of a male pregnancy seem silly — even impossible–but so did the idea of male contraceptive pills. Now, though, it looks like the pharmaceutical industry may have come up with just such a contraceptive pill for guys.1
The contraceptive effect actually was discovered by accident, as scientists at the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston experimented on mice with a new cancer-fighting compound called JQ1. The drug works by making cancer cells “forget” their function. In other words, when exposed to JQ1, tumor cells forget to contribute to the tumor and instead act like normal cells. Since the drug is new, the research team was conducting trials to discover side effects when they found that it seemed to also have the same memory-wipe effect on sperm cells. More specifically, it targets a protein in the testes that triggers sperm to mature. When influenced by JQ1, the protein neglects to do its job and the sperm don’t develop.
After three weeks of daily treatment with the pill, the male mice had a 72 percent reduction in sperm count.2 Most of the remaining sperm swam too slowly to impregnate an egg. After six weeks, sperm count was down by 89 percent, and of the remaining sperm, only five percent had any motility at all.
The thing that has the medical community aflutter, though, isn’t just that this male contraceptive pill works to reduce sperm. It’s that it’s a non-hormonal solution and so won’t cause hormone-related side effects, the effects are completely reversible, and it works without reducing a guy’s libido. On this last point, one of the study directors, Dr. James Bradner, said, “There is no effect on the mouse’s mojo. The animals exhibit the normal sexual behaviors and frequency of copulation.”
It’s interesting that the “mojo” aspect is one of the key points highlighted in the press, given that when the women’s pill came out 50 years ago, that point was hardly at the forefront. The female pill did indeed inhibit libido in many cases, but it didn’t seem to matter much to the medical community. It also had some horrific side effects–especially when it first came to market–depression, headaches, heart attacks, lethal blood clots. Oh, and it did mess with female hormones. That, in fact, is how the female pill works — by disrupting hormonal patterns. Nevertheless, the female pill was released even with all its problems and touted as the great liberator for women.
“The pill permitted women to have control, sometimes even against the wishes of their partners,” says Dr. Ruth Westheimer, speaking for many of her generation, “I think that all of us have to be grateful.”3
It is true that many women do feel grateful for the freedom the pill has afforded them. It’s also true that the incipient development of a less harmful male version certainly is good news, but it’s hard to ignore the politics. As Cynthia Graham, who heads Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute says, “There’s pretty good evidence that there’s a bit of a gender bias here.”4 She points to the emphasis in the press on how the male pill doesn’t inhibit male sexuality.
In her book, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, author Elaine Tyler May concludes that the female pill actually liberated men more than women. “They no longer had to worry about whether they impregnated a woman,” she says. “It lifted the burden of responsibility from them.”
It’s probably worth mentioning that Jon Barron has expressed a slightly different point of view. Back in the day when women commentators were complaining about all the hysterectomies being performed, saying it would never happen to a man, Jon disagreed. He said that money, not gender, was the final arbiter. If doctors ever found an equivalent procedure that they could justify performing on men, they’d be only too happy to do so. And in fact, by 2009, doctors were performing 158,000 prostatectomies a year on men in the U.S.,5 with sexual dysfunction a common side effect.6 Then again, according to the same chart, three times as many hysterectomies were performed that year.
In any event, it will be at least a few years before the male pill gets translated from mouse to men and is ready for market. We can hope that when that pill does come out, it will truly offer a safe, effective solution that will benefit both genders in the end. Given that one-third of all pregnancies still are unplanned and unwanted, it’s an important goal.
1 Steenhuysen, Julie. “Study in mice raises hope for birth control pill for men.” 16 August 2012. Reuters. 16 August 2012. <http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/08/16/health-men-contraception-idINL2E8JG90020120816>
2 Abrams, Lindsey. “A Major Advance Toward a Birth Control Pill For Men.” 16 August 2012. The Atlantic.<http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/08/a-major-advance-toward-a-birth-control-pill-for-men/261217/>
3 Rubin, Rita. “The pill: 50 years of birth control changed women’s lives.” 08 May 2010. USA Today. 18 August 2012. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2010-05-07-1Apill07_CV_N.htm>
4 “Five Myths about the Pill.” 05 May 2012. Newsweek. 18 August 2012. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/05/06/the-pill-turns-50.html>
5National Hospital Discharge Survey: 2009 table, Procedures by selected patient characteristics – Number by procedure category and age. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhds/4procedures/2009pro4_numberprocedureage.pdf>
6 Steven A. Kaplan, Darius A. Paduch, Richard Lee. “Erection Problems Associated With Radical Prostatectomy.” Weill Cornell Medical College James Buchanan Brady Foundation Department of Urology. (Accessed 18 August 2012.) <http://www.cornellurology.com/clinical-conditions/erectile-dysfunction/prostatectomy-and-erection-problems/>