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"The pill" for men

By Andrew J. Pulskamp

Researchers and scientists are always making new discoveries. Usually it involves another cloned sheep or the sighting of a distant planet that is light years away from your everyday campus grind. But in 1960 scientists introduced something that sparked a cultural transformation. They created "the pill" - birth control in a gulp. While some consider it to be the most socially significant medical advance of the 20th century, its male counterpart could be the same to the 21st Century.

Scientists are working on a pill for men and hope to present it to the world as a viable form of contraception. The question is would guys go for it. Jamie Smith is a sophomore at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. As to whether he would take it he says, "Assuming I had a sex life, yes."

"We're working on putting hormones in the nervous system that suppress the pituitary and stops production of sperm. ...The pill would work similar to the female pill."

University of Washington Medical School Chairman

More than two thirds of respondents - both male and female -- in a recent CPNet Poll say that if a birth control pill for men was available today, that men should swallow the responsibility and take it.

That could happen sooner than you think. Doctors at the University of Washington Medical School are on the frontier of male birth control research, and are working to bring a pill for men to fruition. Dr. William Bremner, chairman of the University of Washington Medical School, is one of the country's leading experts in the field. Bremner and his colleagues have been testing various methods of male birth control on humans for years, and lately those tests have yielded increasingly positive results.

Bremner explains, "We're working on putting hormones in the nervous system that suppress the pituitary and stops production of sperm. ...The pill would work similar to the female pill."

Not only would it successfully prevent pregnancy, but the most recent tests suggest that the pill is relatively free of side effects. "[Test subjects] felt the same as normal. But their sperm count drops to zero," says Bremner. Then he goes on to admit that earlier test subjects did experience a decrease in HDL (good cholesterol) and slight weight gain, but, he says, the subjects "didn't seem to mind" the extra pounds because the gain came in the form of muscle, due to the testosterone in the pill.

Poll Results

Do you think men should take responsibility for pregnancy prevention by taking a male birth control pill, if it were on the market today?

The costs for male birth control are expected to be reasonable, probably running about the same as its female counterpart. Obstetrician/gynecologists, urologists and primary care physicians could prescribe the pills, and as far as insurance companies covering the cost -- only time will tell. Right now only about half of the insurance companies in the U.S. cover the cost for women's birth control pills.

Bremner and his team are also working on other forms of contraception for men like injections, which have a better track record than the male pill when it comes to effectiveness in test groups. Men who choose to get the injections would have to roll up their sleeves once every three to four months. Smith would definitely prefer his dose in pill form and echoes a sentiment that is common, "I'm not a big fan of needles."

The introduction of a male birth control pill would also likely be pulling a wagonload of social repercussions. Bremner says, "I think there would be a substantial impact, especially for young men who aren't in long term relationships. ...And couples that are in long term relationships, they might want to alternate [responsibility]."

Amie Williams, a sophomore at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana thinks guys should start taking responsibility but has some reservations when it comes to male birth control. "I would worry about how seriously [men] would take it. I would worry because if they don't take it and something did happen, they still don't have to take responsibility. It's not their body."

Dr. Albert George Thomas is an ob/gyn and the director of family planning at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. He says, "It's hard to generalize but a lot of men would not be interested in taking responsibility. Some men think forwardly, some don't." But he quickly points out that "some men go as far to have a vasectomy. So it's obvious that there are some men who have a real interest."

Beyond the willingness of men to take responsibility, trust becomes an important issue. For male birth control to be effective, women would have to depend on their partners to take it every day. But when it comes right down to it, women still have more at stake in the whole equation. A guy can't get pregnant and he's less likely to get stuck with a child.

"I would worry about how seriously [men] would take it. I would worry because if they don't take it and something did happen, they still don't have to take responsibility. It's not their body."

Rocky Mountain College sophomore

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Jennifer Wilson, a sophomore at Purdue University, comments, "I think that if a guy is responsible he would take [a pill]. But I don't think that I would completely trust a guy to do it."

If trust isn't a part of a sexual relationship then, Thomas says, a male birth control pill or injection shouldn't be the only means of preventing pregnancy. "If there's not trust then [a male pill] is irrelevant. You really should be using condoms. Trust in that situation can be a life threatening decision."

It does seem the time is approaching for men to assume a greater role in preventing pregnancy. Bremner estimates that the male birth control pill will hit the market by the year 2006, "but the availability of injections look to be possible in three to four years."

For those guys who would rather shun the thought of taking the pill -- it won't be that easy. Our social conscience will never stop reminding us to question and make changes, and medical research will never stop evolving. In fact, science is right around the corner saying, "Ready or not, here I come."

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