Modern women have had access to effective, easy-to-use contraceptives since the birth control pill came on to the market in 1960. For men, only the centuries-old condom has proved as effective as female birth control methods—even though scientists have been trying to develop a male birth control pill for 36 years. But last month officials of the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that researchers at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary had obtained promising results from a yearlong clinical trial of a new male contraceptive. Researchers administered monthly injections of a hormone preparation to nine volunteers and found that the mixture rendered the subjects temporarily sterile. Now, the WHO-backed trials will be extended to at least eight other countries next year. And Dr. Frederick Wu, the clinical scientist who directed the Edinburgh tests, predicts that pharmaceutical companies could be marketing the preparation in pill form by the year 2000.
The search for a male pill has been marked by repeated failures. It has also been accompanied by occasional charges from feminists that medical researchers, most of whom are men, hesitate to interfere with the rhythms of the male body. But such experts as Dr. Wayne Bardin, a biomedical research director in New York City, say instead that basic biology has prompted scientists to concentrate on female reproductive cycles. For one thing, a man’s body can produce as many as 200 million sperm each dayeach one capable of fertilizing the single egg produced by a woman each month. Still, scientists have tested various substances and techniques in their attempts to restore the contraceptive imbalance. In experiments conducted in a 1983 scientific trial, 12 men in Montreal and Quebec City wore extremely tight underwear to hold their testicles close to their bodies. The men reported some initial discomfort, but the yearlong tests showed that increased temperatures in the testicles did lower sperm production. But in 1984, Chinese authorities halted tests on a chemical derived from cotton seeds when researchers discovered that it had caused permanent sterility in several subjects.
By contrast, the Edinburgh trials
found that the volunteers’ sperm production returned to normal three to four months after they stopped taking the hormone mixture. Indeed, one man’s wife became pregnant six months after her husband received his last injection. The test subjects— including a telecommunications engineer, a plumber and a bingo callerall received small doses of gestagen, a hormone that suppresses pituitary hormones needed to stimulate sperm production. At the same time, the monthly injections contained the male hormone androgen to maintain such male secondary sexual characteristics as facial hair growth and lower-pitched voices. The test results: seven of the nine volunteers produced no sperm at all during the trial, and the other two produced only small quantities. Declared Wu: “Even when the sperm count was reduced to small numbers, they were nonfunctional and incapable of penetrating or fertilizing eggs.” There was one other significant—and heartening—finding. During the tests, the volunteers also kept diaries of their sex lives touching on such matters as patterns of lovemaking, thoughts, desire and even fantasies. All nine reported that the hormone treatments did not interfere with their sex drives.
Despite such promising results, many researchers say that a male pill will not gain widespread acceptance until men can overcome their resistance to a contraceptive that causes temporary sterility. Said Wu: “There is a hard core of men who will never accept the idea of a birth control pill. They would think the idea was a threat to their manhood.” Indeed, in a 1984 study drawn from extensive interviews with 31 men, Toronto endocrinologist Dr. Jerald Bain found that only 60 per cent said that they would use a proven male birth control pill. Said Bain, who has researched male contraception— and men’s attitudes toward it—for the past 12 years: “There is modest acceptance on the part of males—not overwhelming acceptance.” Added Wu: “A male pill may never be popular with bachelors with active sex lives, simply because girls wouldn’t believe a man who said he was taking it.”
Bain said he doubts that the male pill will quickly gain widespread acceptance. But to counter such skepticism, Wu is preparing to resume tests involving 300 couples. The ultimate goal of the research continuing in Scotland and such countries as Australia: redressing the sexual imbalance in contraception.
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