After decades of research and numerous failures, there is a new hope for a birth control pill for men

The first studies on birth control pills started in the 1950s, and the female version of the pill was introduced in the 60s. At first, it was deemed nothing short of revolutionary as it gave women the freedom to choose if they wanted to have children. Over the years, scientists and rights groups have increasingly criticized the fact that one sex bears all the responsibility, on top of having to deal with some serious side effects.

The male counterparts for contraceptives have lagged behind for decades, and it has been a long and arduous journey. However, research has seemed to have picked up steam, and alternative medication for men appears to be closer than ever. Meanwhile, the public is eagerly waiting for them, with more than 30% of males stating they would use a birth control pill, according to a recent survey conducted in England.

Women have many choices for birth control, ranging from pills to patches to intrauterine devices, and partly as a result, they bear most of the burden of preventing pregnancy. But men’s birth control options — and, therefore, responsibilities — could soon be expanding. Currently, men have only two effective options for birth control: male condoms and vasectomy. However, condoms are single-use only and prone to failure.

In contrast, vasectomy — a surgical procedure — is considered a permanent form of male sterilization. Although vasectomies can sometimes be reversed, the reversal surgery is expensive and not always successful. Therefore, men need an effective, long-lasting but reversible contraceptive, similar to the birth control pill for women.

Scientists have developed a non-hormonal birth control pill for men with 99 per cent effectiveness and no obvious side effects in mice, and the findings of the study were presented at the American Chemical Society’s spring 2022 conference in San Diego.

A daily or otherwise regular medication that renders men temporarily infertile, is one version of the Holy Grail of male contraceptives.

birth control pill for men

How does the birth control pill for men work?

To develop the male contraceptive, researchers targeted a protein called the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-α). This protein is one of a family of three nuclear receptors that bind retinoic acid, a form of vitamin A, that plays important roles in sperm formation and embryonic development. By removing the RAR-α receptor in male mice, scientists could make male mice sterile. The contraceptive, which was given orally to mice for four straight weeks, dramatically reduced sperm counts in mice and was 99 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy, without any observable side effects. The mice could father pups again four to six weeks after they stopped receiving the compound.

Actually the birth control pill for men has passed the first round of clinical testing, giving hope for less permanent contraception options for men – and potentially leveling the playing field when it comes to pregnancy prevention.

The birth control pill for men could offer a more flexible option for men while also reinforcing two important facts: that men and women are both responsible for contraception, and that men could take a more active and satisfying role in their reproductive health.

Other birth control pills for men under development target testosterone, which can cause side effects like weight gain, depression, and higher levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, known as the “bad” cholesterol.

The non-hormonal pill targets the protein called the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-α), one of three such nuclear receptors. Other oral compounds that target the nuclear receptors have also been developed by other scientists, but this particular drug is different because only the RAR-α is targeted, and as such, researchers say it is less likely to result in side effects.

What are the long-term effects of the birth control pill for men?

Some participants to the study reported mild side effects, such as: Acne, headaches, mild erectile dysfunction, reduced sex drive, tiredness, and weight gain.

Do men really want the birth control pill for men?

Some researchers have argued that overall, the side effects and risks associated with male birth control methods that have been successful in clinical trials are about the same as those faced by women who already use hormonal birth control. This might indicate some bias in the scientific community as to what’s an acceptable rate of adverse effects for men as opposed to women.

Ultimately, contraceptives for men that meet the same standards of usability and accessibility as methods and products currently available for women would be a huge step forward in the fight for reproductive health equity. A 2021 survey found that around 60 percent of straight men would be eager, or at least willing, to try a method they control themselves. Campaigns to drive awareness, uptake, and proper use would be crucial, but that’s something to worry about once the options are actually available. In the short to medium term, giving everyone more safe and effective options is a net win.