When scientists announced this week that the male contraceptive pill is a step closer to being developed my first thought was 'It took them 52 years since the female pill to get this far.'
The development announced in the National Academy of Sciences after researchers found the drug had successfully worked in mice. I welcomed this news, not just because of the obvious match point in the battle for gender equality, but more significantly because it could provide an overdue awakening to men about the disruptive, inconvenient, painful and often dangerous burden that long-term contraception is for women.
Since 1961, when the female contraceptive pill became freely available to all women in the UK, the public has been led to believe that it is a magical panacea to the consequences of unprotected sex. As a result many men, and indeed many women, are blinkered as to the real effects of this tiny sugar coated pill. For women the pill and other forms of hormonal contraception is a personality changing and body changing drug.
Put sexual health risks aside because the pill is aimed at established couples who've already agreed to ditch the condom, and more than half a century after we thought we had birth control sorted, the only comfortable, truly side-effect free form of contraception for women remains the condom. But there are politics with these in long-term relationships. Most people associate these wonderful but ugly rubber inventions with one-night stands and new lovers. Most men quite reasonably expect that once they show commitment to a long-term relationship, his obliging equally committed girlfriend will invest in long-term contraception. He has a point - going condom-free is more fun for everyone.
But for me and the many women I've interviewed during my investigations as a journalist in the field of relationships, the pill makes us bloated, grumpy, spotty, tired, tearful, cold, suffering from pins and needles, headaches and banishes our sex-drive anyway. Most other rubber-free alternatives also involve hormones, which have the same, albeit lesser, effect.
Non-hormonal alternatives prove cumbersome in other areas. Google the non-hormonal coil or the diaphragm and the web is full of women desperate to share their gory side-effects as a warning to other women. The non-hormonal coil causes many women's periods to last for more days of the month than not. The diaphragm is uncomfortable and many can't tell if it is inserted correctly and therefore ineffective. All this says nothing of the numerous and time consuming trips to the GP to first seek advice on, and then get fitted for the various methods of contraception.
The male pill being developed doesn't rely on hormones to make it effective. It will work by blocking two proteins involved in the ejaculation process, which stops sperm being infertile. It won't kill sperm or alter a man's sex drive.
It is about time that men have the option to shoulder the burden of contraception, without it defaulting to women. After all, the legal system in the UK enforces financial responsibility on fathers whether a pregnancy was planned or not. If there is duality of responsibility for any resulting children, there should be duality of responsibility in planning for those children.
Women should also be bolder in their protests for agreeing to long-term contraception. It is only because so many have willingly taken the pill in the belief that there is no other alternative that it has taken 52 years to develop a male alternative. If, in 1961, men were told that the only way they could have unprotected sex without the risk of pregnancy and a lifelong responsibility of childcare, was to ingest a load of hormones which zapped them of energy, made them moody, bloated, spotty and eradicated their sex drive, you can bet that development for a female version would have begun the next day.
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