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Men need access to more birth control options

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Within the last century, feminists have made impressive progress shattering traditional gender roles, such as the  exclusive responsibility for tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and child rearing. It is crucial to not only continue this momentum, but to also dismantle yet another sexist social role: the idea that women are solely responsible for contraception. Individuals who consider themselves feminists can do this by supporting the development and availability of male birth control.

Currently, control over fertility via LARC (long-acting reversible contraception) is restricted to women; men have no LARC options. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, while female LARC is typically seen as a casual, obvious choice for sexually active women, all methods come with mild to severe side effects. These include changes in mood, weight, and sex drive; bleeding/cramping; and increased risk of stroke, heart attack, breast cancer, ovarian cysts, deadly infections, and uterine perforation. A 2016 study of over a million women linked hormonal birth control to increased risk of depression. In fact, 50 percent of women who start a LARC method discontinue it within a year, and negative side effects are the most commonly cited reason. A sexually active woman who struggles with debilitating side effects from LARC methods has no other option but to continue taking them if she would like to reliably prevent pregnancy. It seems unfair that only women are expected to put their bodies through such an intense range of side effects, while both genders enjoy the resulting worry-free sex. While male hormonal LARC options in clinical trials thus far have some undesirable side effects, they are significantly less severe than the extreme side effects of the first female birth control pills launched in 1960. Indeed, it takes time to refine a new contraception method from the drawing board to a safe, marketable product.

Second, placing the burden of responsibility of long-term birth control on women can be linked to a high rate of unintended pregnancies. Men’s birth control options are currently using condoms or withdrawal, both of which have high annual failure rates (15 percent and 22 percent respectively), or to get a vasectomy, which is permanent. Sexually active men who want to avoid fathering children without employing these options have no choice but to trust that their partners will reliably use contraception. But given that 45 percent of American pregnancies are unplanned, it’s clear this method is less than ideal. Doubling the number of parties with the option to reliably prevent pregnancy is crucial to reducing the incredibly high percentage of unplanned pregnancies. While the mainstream narrative about unplanned pregnancies often revolves around their effects on mothers, fathers also often find themselves personally and/or financially responsible for children that they did not intend to conceive. If male LARC existed, heterosexual couples could both elect to take birth control, thereby avoiding potential pregnancy scares on the occasion that one partner forgets to take their pill or shot.

So why hasn’t male LARC been developed yet? The science to make them exists. Several trials show effective hormonal methods ready to be refined. One internal barrier method is already fully developed in India (a removable, semipermeable gel injected into the vas deferens). Large pharmaceutical companies, however, won’t fund their production. These companies incorrectly speculate that there won’t be a demand for male LARC if developed. A Teesside University review of all relevant literature from 1990-2012 identified the main themes in psychosocial and cultural explanations for delaying such a marketable product as: acceptability, trust, fear of side effects, perceptions of gendered contraception responsibility, and fear of losing connotations of masculinity. These findings therefore suggest that men wouldn’t want to take LARC and that women wouldn’t trust men to do so. What’s more, the study cites the statistic that women are three times more likely to undergo tubal ligation than males are to have vasectomies (even though vasectomies are cheaper, safer, and procedurally easier), and therefore men wouldn’t be interested in LARC.

However, these are merely potential reasons for individual people or couples to choose not to use male birth control; they are not sufficient reasons for the choice not to exist in the first place. Just like abortion, even if some people are personally opposed to male LARC, it should still be an available choice for those who would like to use it. Heterosexual partners should be able to review a range of options, experiment, and decide between themselves who will be responsible for birth control. This will allow for consideration of factors such as each partner’s reaction to hormones (side effects vary greatly by individual) and whom they trust to use it correctly.

If those opposed to male LARC are concerned about women having to trust men to take birth control, then they should be equally concerned with the current state of contraception in which one gender has no choice but to trust that the other will reliably handle birth control. If only one partner is using LARC, the other can, and should, assist them in remembering to do so, regardless of their gender. My partner of several years has an alarm on his phone that goes off every day to remind him to check with me that I took my pill. There’s no reason these roles could not be reversed if he were on hormonal birth control, especially given that his body might exhibit fewer side effects than mine.

Finally, the gender stereotypes and expectations that keep male LARC off the market are not only sexist but also inaccurate. In a survey of opinions on male LARC, most men reported that they would be interested in taking it, most participants believe that contraception should be a shared responsibility, and most women in committed relationships would trust their male partners to take it correctly. An Ohio study of married couples showed that these preferences are correlated with opinions on gender equality. Men who had a more egalitarian view of gender roles were more likely to want to try male LARC and to see contraception as a shared responsibility.

The lack of production of male LARC shows just how sexist and unbalanced our society’s expectations for contraception responsibility are. Instead of suggesting we build our medical options around these sexist assumptions, feminists must push for scientists to challenge them. Just as feminists of past decades changed the societal belief that women are exclusively responsible for household chores and men for earning income outside the home, it is crucial that we demand a world where contraception is not a gendered responsibility.



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Quinn Gruver
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