The introduction of the contraceptive pill was ground-breaking for women. By creating accessibility to state-funded contraception, women were suddenly able to take control of their reproductive lives. And yet, despite society slowly progressing towards achieving gender equality, there remains an onus on women to bear the brunt of reproductive responsibility.
Sexual intercourse involves participation from both parties. And yet, aside from using a condom (which many men dislike) or having a vasectomy (which is rather extreme), men have very limited reproductive autonomy when it comes to access to contraception. By contrast, women have the choice of using a plethora of different methods: the contraceptive implant, contraceptive injection, Intrauterine system (IUS), Intrauterine device (IUD), vaginal ring, combined transdermal patch, combined oral contraception, progestogen-only pill, female condom, or the diaphragm.
What is particularly interesting, is that this focus on female birth control completely overlooks the biological process of creating a baby. Women can only get pregnant during several days of the month when they are most fertile. By contrast, every time a man has sexual intercourse*, there is a chance of pregnancy. The fact that contraceptive methods are tailored towards women, who can only fall pregnant only once within nine months, is particularly shocking, especially considering that within those nine months, a man could impregnate a new woman every single day. If my calculations are correct, this indicates that if one woman and one man were to have sexual intercourse with a different person of the opposite sex every day for nine months, for the woman, this only results in 1 pregnancy. For the man, this could result in approximately 274 pregnancies.
It is peculiar then, why society, policy and the law, reinforce the idea that contraception is solely a woman’s responsibility. As decreed by section 1 of the Child Support Act 1991, men are liable to pay child maintenance. Therefore, you would think it not only fair, but necessary to provide men with equivalent reproductive options.
As identified by andrologist John Amory, contraceptive options for men, including a male pill, are becoming a real possibility. In a 2017 TED Talk, Amory outlines multiple ways of achieving this. He advocates for a method whereby the function of Vitamin A in the testes is blocked, to stop sperm production entirely. If you’re interested in the science behind this, check out this talk here.
However, underfunding and lack of interest from pharmaceutical companies provides a barrier to any real progress. Indeed, why would pharmaceutical companies even consider investing in male contraception, if society has already confirmed that contraceptive use is a woman’s prerogative.
As Amory notes, men usually have two responses to the idea of a male pill: they either love it or are extremely wary of it. And who can blame them? They only need talk to their girlfriend, fiancé, wife, sister or mother to establish that most methods of birth control are extremely burdensome. Not only do they necessitate GP consultations, blood pressure checks and device fitting appointments, but many induce awful side effects.
This makes placing the contraceptive burden on women more than just an issue of fairness, but an issue of health. Not only do a significant proportion of women taking contraceptives suffer from common side effects such as:
· weight gain,
· weight loss,
· disrupted periods,
· low mood and depression,
· decreased libido,
– but taking certain contraceptives can increase one’s chance of suffering from serious health conditions, including cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots; and certain forms of cancer, such as breast or cervical. And guess what? The longer one is using these birth control methods, the greater this risk becomes. Society has gendered contraceptives with the consequence that girls as young as thirteen feel that it is normal and necessary to be putting hormones into their bodies that have dramatic effects on their physical and mental health. Arguably, girls this young do not understand the implications of contraceptives, nor question why the burden falls on them.
The irony is, the often-trivialised common side effects experienced by many women, have been seen to be legitimately debilitating when experienced by men during the clinical trials for male contraceptives. This begs the question: does society take male pain more seriously than female pain? Evidently so.
Until both men and women have access to suitable methods of contraception, gender equality remains far from achievable. As recognised by Sir David Attenborough in his latest film ‘A Life on Our Planet’, slowing population growth is more important than ever if we are to reverse the devastating impact we have had on our planet. He recognised that this is only attainable if people’s socioeconomic status, and access to both healthcare and education, is improved; especially for girls. I disagree. Regardless of gender, everyone has a responsibility to consider the repercussions of sexual intercourse and should have a wide range of contraceptive options available to them. Only when the equal participation in contraceptive responsibility is normalised will reproductive justice be achieved for all.
*Heterosexual sexual intercourse
Written by Sydney-Anne McAllister, Edited by Thomas Lattimore.