March 10, 2015

What Are Men’s Options To Prevent Pregnancy?

Lauren Schrader discusses a new reversible contraceptive option in development for men.

Print More
Victorian postcard depicting a woman fighting off a stork delivering a baby.

Not yet! Not yet!

Current Male Birth Control Options

The phrase “male birth control” is one you don’t hear often. That is because at present, men have very few options when it comes to pregnancy prevention. According to Planned Parenthood, men have five options: abstinence, condom, outercourse, withdrawal, and vasectomy. Two of those five options involve not having penetrative sex, sterilization through vasectomy is intended to be permanent, and the typical use failure rate for condoms and withdrawal are higher than for those for options available to women. But what if that all changed?

Though much of it has passed under the radar, research into an array of male birth control options has been underway for years. When developing contraceptives, scientists look at all the steps of successful reproduction and find one specific point at which to interfere with the process and render it unsuccessful.

Historically, the focus has been on women’s reproductive systems, perhaps in part because of the cultural bias of pregnancy being their responsibility, but also, due to practicality. Women produce a single egg one time a month whereas men produce millions of sperm every hour. However, the Parsemus Foundation, a not-for-profit company, thinks they may have found the solution.

A New Idea

The product name is Vasalgel in the US, and the pregnancy-prevention method is actually quite simple. It is based on the methodology used for vasectomies. During a  vasectomy, the vas deferens—two small tubes that carry mature sperm from the testicles to the penis during ejaculation—are cut, tied off, cauterized, or otherwise blocked to prevent the sperm from exiting the body.

The product (and similar products such as RISUG) also affects the vas deferens, but rather than cutting the vas deferens, a gel substance is injected in each tube to block sperm from getting to the penis. In other words, Vasalgel differs because it is designed to be more easily reversible: when needed, your doctor can flush out the gel and your reproductive capabilities can resume.

Important Questions To Ask About Vasalgel

How long will it last? Once in place, the gel can likely last a number of years, but more testing is needed before that can be determined.

Does this mean ejaculation will not occur? No. Ejaculate fluid is primarily composed of excretions from the seminal vesicles and prostate gland, which are unaffected by the product. Ejaculate would still be expelled during ejaculation, only the sperm will not be present.

What are the potential side effects? Primate testing is currently underway, so nothing is certain yet. However, since this product is so similar to vasectomies, which have been successfully performed for decades, the side effects are expected to be comparable.

Other frequently asked questions about Vasalgel are listed here.

Potential Concerns

An issue the developers already face is a lack of funding from the pharmaceutical industry. Companies within the pharmaceutical industry express skepticism that a product like this would ever be successful and are also motivated by a desire to avoid losing the millions they make on women’s multi-dose contraceptives that could be replaced with a one-time cheap injection for men. Consequently, current research and trials are donation funded.

There is also the possibility that a product like this could lead to a rise in sexually transmitted infections. If condoms were no longer needed for pregnancy prevention, how likely would it be that men would keep using them? This is an extremely important consideration.

The Social Impact Of Male Birth Control

Vasalgel, and any similar men’s birth control options, could really change the game. It could help reduce the prevalence of unintended pregnancies in the US, and provide a much cheaper option for lower-income individuals disproportionately affected by unintended pregnancy. It could also offer an alternative to female hormonal contraception, freeing women from potential side effects associated with chemically altering the menstrual cycle.

However, the bigger question is: Is society ready? How would this change the political debate over access to reproductive health? Would men be willing to shoulder more of the responsibility of reproductive control? With human trials beginning in 2016, we might be able to start answering those questions in the next few years.

For more information about other men’s birth control options, see the descriptions provided by the Male Contraception Information Project.

Lauren Schrader graduated from Indiana University Bloomington, with a degree in Anthropology and specialization in Human Biology.