How the Cancelled Male Birth Control Study Reveals the Pill’s Ugly Past
Male birth control is no longer a pipe dream we have for the scientists of the future. It’s happening now. Except maybe not. This week, a ton of news outlets reported about a current study on an experimental male birth control shot that researchers stopped short due to health concerns. Men were experiencing side effects like “acne, mood swings, changes in libido and weight gain.” Basically, what every woman goes through on a regular basis while on the pill. Outrage and a lot of male mockery ensued.
Headlines like “Yes, contraceptives have side effects — and it’s time for men to put up with them too” and “New Male Birth Control May Never Happen Because Men Are Big Babies” populated the web. We all laughed at the obvious double standard that was immediately blatant. But we also all failed to see the tragic underlying story here. Not only were some of those reported health concerns actually pretty serious (one participant was rendered infertile and eight men weren’t able to return to their normal sperm count; another man committed suicide while undergoing the trial), but it rehashed the questionable and often untold story that created the pill 60 years ago.
In the mid-’50s, Gregory Pincus and John Rock conducted the first major study on hormonal birth control in Massachusetts. Because of strict contraception laws established in the area at the time, it was conducted under the guise of a “fertility study.” 50 women participated and it was deemed 100 percent effective. However, it was also given to 12 female and 16 male psychiatric patients without their direct consent.
A couple of years after that, Pincus and Rock moved things over to Puerto Rico to conduct a larger-scale study there, as the country didn’t have strict anti-birth control laws at the time. However, there were some ulterior motives for this decision besides legality. The majority of the female Puerto Rican participants were not literate in, nor fluent in, English. Researchers thought that would make it easier to persuade them to participate. It did. Many weren’t informed that they were testing an experimental drug or warned about potentially dangerous side effects. Additionally, critics of the pill claimed it would be “too complicated” for women in developing countries to take. So, the condescending reasoning of the pill’s developers was that if the poor and uneducated women in Puerto Rico were able to succeed, it would help silence those accusations. Gross on so many levels.
The women were given a drug called Enovid, which is a combination of estrogen and progesterone — not unlike what’s used today. However, the progesterone dosage back then was more than twice as strong. One to five milligrams is now the average, but back then the women were taking 10. And while it was again found to be effective, patients reported side effects including nausea, weight gain, depression, loss of libido and mood changes, not unlike what a lot of women on hormonal birth control suffer from now. Except, given the high dosage, these side effects were even more severe.
There were also a number of patients who experienced serious health issues like blood clots. Blood clots are actually thought to be the reason for three deaths that occurred during the study but were never fully investigated. Dr. Edris Rice-Wray, a faculty member of the Puerto Rico Medical School, relayed the effectiveness of the drug as well as the concerning side effects to Rock and Pincus. The two quickly accepted the good and dismissed the negative conclusions, deeming the side effects as “psychosomatic.”
The pill was brought to market shortly after, with the side effects swept under the rug. It wasn’t until the ’80s that the dosage was lowered from 10 milligrams to five. Now some low-dose pills include just one-milligram of progesterone. And to top it all off, it wasn’t until THIS YEAR that clinical research linked depression to birth control. (Read more about that here.)
So, let’s drop the name-calling for those men who dropped out of the study due to side effects. They’re not wimps, pansies or crying babies. Let’s also take a minute to reflect on the double standard that has been rehashed and reinforced during all this coverage. It took just minutes for concerns surrounding the male birth control trials to make headlines. But it has taken 60 years for the same sort of health concerns to be widely shared and vocalized. Birth control is important. But finding a method that’s actually safe is even more so.