Pharmacist hands a packet of birth control to a patient.
Photograph courtesty of BSIP/UIG via Getty Images
By Sy Mukherjee
March 27, 2018

A recent study from University of Washington researchers (and funded by the National Institutes of Health) has rekindled hopes that a short-term male birth control pill may actually be viable. In an early trial, high doses of dimethandrolone undecanoate (DMAU) demonstrated hormonal changes that would (in theory) reduce sperm production and cause other changes that make it more difficult to impregnate someone. But the conversation around this highly experimental technology highlights how different scientific and social health policy discussions can be influenced by sex and gender.

There are many important caveats about this early research—including the likelihood of significant possible side effects, and the fact that far larger and more detailed, peer-reviewed studies will be required to establish efficacy—and it’s opened up complex conversations about how such a prophylactic measure would work out in practicality. Would men be open to such a hormone-changing therapy, which may entail side effects including weight gain, libido loss, and mood changes (the kinds of adverse events that have long accompanied female hormonal birth control)? If they were, would they take the medication as prescribed?

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Prominent experts have been probing those precise issues in the wake of the University of Washington’s research. But the science and policies affecting birth control overwhelmingly affect women. And digital health is one new kind of medical technology some women are turning to as states crack down on family planning services, NPR outlines in a new report.

For instance, digital birth control apps—such as those that allow women to purchase hormonal birth control without having to go to a doctor or another health provider—are on the rise, according to NPR, especially in so-called “contraception deserts.” These are regions where it may be particularly difficult to get to a family planning facility, whether because of local policies or socioeconomic road bumps; lower prices and privacy are also big draws.

It’s a striking dichotomy. Preliminary, unproven birth control innovations for men are already facing pushback over possible physical and social effects, while proven ones for women (with long-evident physical and social effects) are, in some places, difficult enough to acquire that entirely new kinds of technologies have to be used to get them at all.

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