A hard pill to swallow: it’s time for men to take responsibility for birth control

Isabel Ames

“It’s okay, I’m on birth control,” is an expression that is all too familiar to many sexually active young women, who must often excuse their male partners from using a contraceptive. This is because the responsibility for preventing pregnancy disproportionately falls on women, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, despite the rudimentary fact that conceiving a child requires the participation of both a man and a woman.

Illustration by Keely Ganong

The largest contributor to this unequal responsibility is the lack of developed male contraceptive methods. Men conveniently have two available forms of contraception to choose from — male condoms and vasectomies. Meanwhile, women have an array of 11 birth control options, including two families of contraception that have not yet been developed for men: hormonal and long-acting, reversible contraception. This outrageous disparity in options is especially irksome considering the differing reproductive potentials between the sexes. One man can impregnate nine women every day for nine months –– amounting to 2,430 potential pregnancies –– while one woman can only get pregnant once within nine months, even if she beds nine men every day within that period. The perception of birth control being feminine work is outdated, as current, state-of-the-art technology has proven capable of developing more male contraceptive methods. Furthermore, the current lack of birth control options for men demonstrates a sexist feminization of contraception within, but not limited to, American culture. 

According to Northwestern Medicine, there have been several high-profile efforts to develop more male contraceptive methods. Products called Vasalgel and RISUG (Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance), both injectable compounds that block sperm from the vas deferens duct, have shown the most promising results. They are effective immediately and can be reversed with an injectable antidote. Despite this hopeful progress, it could be years before any of these options are available to the public because pharmaceutical companies, in congruence with plentiful revenue from female methods, have shown little interest in developing or marketing them, as stated by the Population Council’s Center for Biomedical Research.

The perceived female responsibility for birth control is problematic, first, because it forces women to bear most of the financial burdens of contraception. According to the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, female contraceptive methods are more expensive than male methods, as most require a physician visit and renewable prescriptions. In addition, many insurance plans do not cover contraception, making many women pay out of pocket. 

Furthermore, there are other costs of contraception that are not financial. The impacts of pregnancy prevention on a woman’s physical and emotional wellbeing are enough to make abstinence the more appealing route. Female methods such as birth control pills can have many unwanted and more serious side effects compared to male methods, which explains why several female methods have discontinuation rates that approach 50 percent after one year of use.

This number comes from utmost distressing experiences with certain contraceptive methods. The painful ocular migraines my birth control pill induced drove me to stop its use. Some of my friends also on the pill have complained of gaining twenty pounds of unwanted weight and others of developing severe anxiety and depression. Not to mention, worrying about the possibility of an unintended pregnancy, undergoing invasive procedures, acquiring the knowledge to effectively prevent pregnancy and more stressors all contribute to the concomitant time, attention and burden of contraception. 

It is important to note that men would not be in the wrong for finding birth control unappealing. However, a shared birth control arrangement is necessary, and would also benefit men. By ceding major responsibility of contraception to women, men must trust that their female partners are properly using it. So, by taking a larger role in preventing pregnancy, men will gain reproductive autonomy in addition to advancing gender equality. 

Granted, taking more responsibility proves difficult with so few options for men. However, there are a number of ways male partners can help women with birth control in anticipation of more methods becoming available. These include offering to pay for half or, better, the full cost of birth control as compensation for the physical and emotional toll it takes on women. Men can also participate by helping with appointments; providing transportation and attending physician visits are ways to show moral support for their female partner. Being knowledgeable on the heavy burden of birth control and communicating one’s understanding and empathy are impactful first steps towards a more just contraception arrangement. 

More male contraception methods, as well as ideological changes regarding gender roles are essential in order to break down the feminization of contraception. Resistance to accept responsibility for pregnancy prevention is resistance against gender equality, as well as a childish and gross display of entitlement. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s time for men to step up and share birth control responsibilities.