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Are Men Too Weak for Hormonal Birth Control?

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Transcript:

Male birth control study nixed after men can’t handle side effects women face daily”! Oh my goodness, men are such precious little babies, aren’t they? Can’t even handle a little acne, or hypertension, or suicidal depression….hold on, that actually sounds kind of bad.

Let’s be clear: the side effects reported in the discontinued study on male birth control absolutely are comparable to what women currently experience today using hormonal birth control, and are nowhere near as bad as what women had to go through when the Pill was first introduced in the 1950s, when women actually died due to blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, and ovarian cancer. It’s safer now, but the side effects are so severe that at least one survey suggests 39% of women quit taking it in the first year, compared to 3% of Norplant users or 13% of IUD users.

So if women have been putting up with this shit every day for the past 70 years, why can’t men? Great question! For a start, men CAN put up with that shit. In the halted study, more than 87% of the male subjects reported that they would like to continue using the birth control despite the side effects. It wasn’t whiny men who stopped the study–it was careful scientists.

And the scientists didn’t stop the study because they didn’t think the men could handle the side effects. They stopped the study because they were seeing new and more dramatic side effects than they had previously seen in smaller studies leading up to this. Back in the 50s, standards were much, much lower for pushing pharmaceuticals to market. Today, things are better and fewer people die thanks to this kind of careful research. Let’s say you test a new drug on 20 people and find that 18 of them get acne, 2 get an increase in libido, and 1 experiences mood swings. So next you test it on 200 men and find that 180 get acne, 20 get an increase in libido, 80 get mood swings, and 3 try to kill themselves. That’s no good when you were expecting to only see 10 people get mood swings. That’s like what happened here. This was a Stage II trial, and the side effects were way worse than the first stage. As a bonus, a lot of the side effects originated from one medical center, meaning that someone there may have screwed shit up. In a case like that, it’s a very good idea to stop what you’re doing and reevaluate.

And by the way, this study DID have three reported cases of severe depression. I’ve seen commenters claiming that the study led to a suicide, but that’s not necessarily true. According to the researchers, one subject reported serious depression that was found to be probably related to the injection; another subject attempted to overdose on paracetamol, which was found to be possibly related to the injection; and one other subject did commit suicide one month after his last injection. The suicide was investigated and found to be unrelated to the injection.

So no, in general the study didn’t show that the injection was any worse than the current hormonal birth control options offered to women. But that doesn’t mean that men can’t handle the same risks as women. All you’re seeing is the evolution and improvement of the scientific process, and with luck pharmaceutical companies will continue to safely explore male birth control options since many men today have voiced a strong interest in it. In fact, the male birth control injection may be the final end result of all those claims men’s rights activists made about women trying to spermjack them. So….yay?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. November 12, 2016 at 8:35 pm —

    Thanks for taking on the scientific issues around this. The reporting also falls into the old newspaper game of stoking ‘The War Between The Sexes’, which is not only good for increasing the number of angry readers and comments (aka click bait), but also lets the newspaper or website trivialise what might be genuine problems facing men and/or women.

    Putting down men for not being able to handle symptoms is another way of saying to women that they don’t have a right to be alarmed if they are feeling suicidal or having severe reactions to medication, when in fact they almost definitely should at least be speaking to their doctor. Implying that people – whatever their gender – should just ‘tough it out’, is the worst health message that could be spread.

  2. November 13, 2016 at 7:38 am —

    The most important development here are the Helsinki Protocols from 1964 (which have been updated several times since then). They state very clearly that a study may only go on if the costs to the people you try on are outweighed by the potential benefits for those people. So you can’t do what Sweden did in the 1950s, when we gave sweets to mentally handicapped people in order to study caries and justified that by the benefits to society.

    • November 22, 2016 at 3:01 am —

      In America we just prevented black men from treating their syphilis by lying to them and pretending to give them medical care, so we could study it. Only 40 of their partners caught their syphilis, and only like a dozen babies were born with congenital syphilis as a result, but for some reason the publicity surrounding this was bad…

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