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A Birth Control Pill for Men? In Your Dreams

5 years ago
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Now that the balloons have come down from 50th-birthday celebrations of the Pill, I want to delicately point out the elephant in the room on biological destiny: Women remain the only ones in charge of preventing pregnancy.

For those of us who grew up during the post-Pill era, the idea of woman's biological imperative to control her own fertility – the dream of feminists from Margaret Sanger, who Jamie Stiehm so beautifully eulogized, to Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan – surpassed privilege, and became a right before we were born. Whether we opted to take the Pill or not, the oral contraceptive gave us the freedom to understand we are not simply "allowed" to decide when, or if, to have babies, we are also expected to make reasonable, rational, well-timed decisions about birthing.

So sure we were about our biological and psychological capabilities, and the importance of our control, that we glided well past a funny intellectual inconsistency: women, for the most part, don't get pregnant on their own. Men tend to play an important part. Though many boys use temporary prophylactics such as condoms, and long-married men have surgical vasectomies as a permanent resolution, with the breakthrough of fertility control with the Pill, the day-to-day responsibility for preventing pregnancy dropped, heavily, entirely in a woman's court.For 50 years women have been breaking open the tiny foil seals on their Pill packages. Early feminists broke down doors to do so – it was only in 1970 that single women were even allowed to buy contraception. Earlier still, in the 1960s, as my colleague Delia Lloyd so movingly describes, they were a God-send to married women. But 50 years along, there is no equivalent option for their male partners to pitch in. Can you see it? One year you'll be on it, one year I will be. . . !

Dr. Carl Djerassi, often called the "Father" of the Pill for his role in the development of a hormone pregnancy inhibitor in the 1950s, wrote in his 2001 autobiography that Margaret Sanger's 1930s definition of feminism was "'[freedom] from biological slavery, which would best be accomplished through birth control.'"

"Probably most women would agree that the Pill heavily contributed to the achievement of that aim," Dr. Djerassi wrote, "but at the same time the convenience of the Pill and its wide acceptance by women gave many men the excuse to abandon their own responsibility." Only the threat of HIV/AIDS and other virulent STDs jolted men from their happy contraceptive slumber.

And yet, disease is not a pregnancy. Dr. Djerassi has, in interviews, expressed skepticism that a male pill will ever make it to market. Men, he thinks, won't tolerate the side effects or the uncertainty, and big pharmaceuticals don't think it's commercially viable. Women know the trade-off of side effects is the chance to decide when and if to have kids, but men don't really see a huge upside, unless they're a particularly feminist brand of man.

There are rumors that a male pill is within five to seven years of marketability. There have been a number of studies running. (Good news, guys -- the male pill is no longer causing as much weight gain as it had in the beginning, nor the acne.) Maybe at the Pill's 60th birthday, women can also celebrate the younger "man" in town. It would be nice to say: "The Pill always made me weepy, so I'm sorry, but you'll have to take it." Or, "I just can't have that bloating. Can you be on it?"

And if it does, as promised, finally finally make it to market? If we finally convinced Big Pharma to invest and the FDA to approve, would women even trust men to take it while the consequence of forgetting remains our bodies that get pregnant? With just a handful of particularly fertile exceptions, men can't gestate babies. Until they can, it's hard to imagine women handing that responsibility over to a man, who might forget to take his Pill or change his patch. Shudder.
Filed Under: Woman Up
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