NOT SOON ENOUGH
Male Birth Control, Without Condoms, Will Be Here by 2017
A reversible polymer that blocks sperm is about to enter human trials and will be available by 2017. How will rhetoric change when male bodies are responsible for birth control?
Vasalgel, a reversible form of male birth control, just took one step closer to your vas deferens.
According to a press release from the Parsemus Foundation, a not-for profit organization focused on developing low-cost medical approaches, Vasalgel is proving effective in a baboon study. Three lucky male baboons were injected with Vasalgel and given unrestricted sexual access to 10 to 15 female baboons each. Despite the fact that they have been monkeying around for six months now, no female baboons have been impregnated. With the success of this animal study and new funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Parsemus Foundation is planning to start human trials for Vasalgel next year. According to their FAQ page, they hope to see it on the market by 2017 for, in their words, less than the cost of a flat-screen television.
So how does Vasalgel work? It is essentially a reimagining of a medical technology called RISUG (reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance) that was developed by a doctor named Sujoy Guha over 15 years ago in India, where it has been in clinical trials ever since. Unlike most forms of female birth control, Vasalgel is non-hormonal and only requires a single treatment in order to be effective for an extended period of time. Rather than cutting the vas deferens—as would be done in a vasectomy—a Vasalgel procedure involves the injection of a polymer contraceptive directly into the vas deferens. This polymer will then block any sperm that attempt to pass through the tube. At any point, however, the polymer can be flushed out with a second injection if a man wishes to bring his sperm back up to speed.
The Parsemus Foundation’s messaging on Vasalgel has focused on making the technology appealing to men. In a New York Times op-ed published this year, Elaine Lissner of the Parsemus Foundation pitches the product to “a 20-something or 30-something man, out on the dating market” who is worried about the effectiveness of the pill, given how many women forget to take pills during any given cycle. This pitch, too, is a plea for help. The Parsemus Foundation has to rely on donations and crowdfunding in order to bring male birth control to the market. Long-term treatments like Vasalgel are much less appealing to potential funders in the pharmaceutical industry who, as they observe, would much rather “sell pills to men’s partners every month.” Why sell a flat-screen television to a man, after all, when you can rent one to a woman for a decade?
In other words, the medical industry’s investment in the multibillion-dollar female birth control industry might block men’s access to male birth control just as effectively as Vasalgel would block their sperm. But a contraceptive polymer like Vasalgel would be a major medical innovation for more than just the man about town looking to copulate without consequence. In fact, male birth control could be the next major medical advance in women’s health, as strange as that idea seems.
If the use of polymer contraceptives were to become widespread, male birth control would completely transform the ways in which we understand sexual and reproductive health. Ever since men started wrapping animal intestines around their penises hundreds of years ago, we have been approaching birth control as a way of temporarily preventing fertilization inside a woman’s body. But what if we haven’t been able to see the forest through the ovaries? What if we could use polymer contraceptives like Vasalgel to block sperm at the source, rather than implementing expensive, convoluted, and potentially harmful contraceptive countermeasures inside women’s bodies?
If Vasalgel were to become as widespread and inexpensive as the Parsemus Foundation expects, unintended pregnancies could be substantially reduced. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. That figure rises to 80 percent of all pregnancies among women age 19 and younger, and to 90 percent below age 15. The physical, financial, and emotional toll of an unintended pregnancy can be immense. As a report from the Guttmacher Institute notes, the average cost of an abortion is $485, which “pose[s] a major financial burden for women seeking these services,” who are often lower income. Not all unintended pregnancies are unwanted, however, and given the fact that modern birth control has deep roots in Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s belief in eugenics, the benefits of male birth control for lower-income families in particular should not be overemphasized.
Even if we set the prevention of unintended pregnancies aside, however, the potentially deleterious side effects of female birth control are enough to justify the implementation of Vasalgel on their own. As WomensHealth.Gov notes, side effects of the birth control pill include an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, blood clots, nausea, irregular bleeding, and depression. Less common methods of contraception like diaphragms and sponges can cause the rare and life-threatening toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Injections like Depo-Provera can cause bone loss and the use of intrauterine devices (IUDs) can potentially cause rips or tears in the uterus itself. It would take a commercial announcer a full minute of speed-reading to list off all the risks of every form of female birth control. Interrupting ovulation and fertilization is a complex process that requires a degree of hormonal regulation, often impacting other areas of a woman’s health.
But as luck would have it, you don’t have to tamper with testosterone in order to block sperm. It might seem as if men are unstoppable sperm machines, especially given the fact they produce 1,500 of them per second. But because sperm are as fickle as they are plentiful, technologies like Vasalgel and RISUG need not interfere with the production of sperm itself in the same way that female birth control often interferes with ovulation. Like the Little Dutch Boy walking by a dike on the brink of bursting, Vasalgel can simply plug up the vas deferens and stop an entire sea of sperm from crashing through. It promises to be a parsimonious solution to the age-old problem of preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is nothing short of Occam’s razor for your testicles.
While the way Vasalgel works inside a man’s body might be simple, its cultural impact would be complex. The Religious Right, in particular, has grown accustomed to a world in which regulating access to birth control means regulating women’s bodies, rather than men’s bodies. Although the Affordable Care Act began offering women no-to-low-cost contraceptive coverage in 2010, the Supreme Court’s now-infamous Hobby Lobby ruling this summer allowed “closely-held corporations” to offer health insurance plans without contraceptive coverage. The Hobby Lobby ruling is already being used to try to undermine Obamacare’s contraceptive requirement altogether. This week, Missouri state Representative Paul Wieland’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services went to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court will consider whether or not it is constitutional for “closely-held corporations” to be able to opt out of contraceptive coverage while states like Missouri cannot.
Lost in all of this legal conflict, however, is the fact that Hobby Lobby, of course, still covers vasectomies. But what if vasectomies were cheap, non-invasive, fully reversible, and as widespread as the female birth control pill? Would businesses like Hobby Lobby begin to object to them? If Vasalgel became popular and affordable enough to surpass female birth control, it would put the Religious Right’s opposition to contraception to the test. As The New York Times reported in 2012, many on the Religious Right justify their opposition to some forms of birth control by equating them with abortion because they “prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.” But if men’s bodies became the primary site for birth control, would religious leaders shift their rhetoric and take issue with a technology like Vasalgel on the grounds that it prevents life on a massive scale? Or do debates about life only have meaning when they take place over women’s bodies?
If the Parsemus Foundation’s optimistic timeline for the release of Vasalgel holds true, we may be forced to confront these questions sooner than expected. In the meantime, men, prepare for the possibility that you may soon take over primary responsibility for contraception from your wife or girlfriend. The future of birth control is coming and soon it might be inside of you.