Male Hormonal Birth Control May Be 96 Percent Effective, Study Says

So why did familiar side effects such as mood swings, depression, and acne end a male birth control study?


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A paper published in late October suggests that male hormonal birth control is, scientifically speaking, very possible. During the study, two hormonal injections given every eight weeks successfully prevented pregnancy—by temporarily and reversibly lowering sperm count—in about 96 percent of couples.

That result is generating headlines in its own right, but it’s sharing the spotlight with another bit of news: Study enrollment was cut short due to high rates of reported side effects, including mood swings, depression, libido changes, injection site soreness, and acne. Twenty couples left the study early, though 75 percent of participants said they’d use the method moving forward.

If you’re a woman, it has no doubt already dawned on you that such side effects sound awfully similar to those experienced by the millions of female patients using hormonal contraceptives every day. A study published last month even outlined the most concrete link between female hormonal birth control and depression to date. So why are those side effects considered normal in women, but study-ending in men?

Joan Hier, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says there’s likely nothing sinister at work—despite the countless social media posts and sassy headlines to the contrary.

“I think social media is very good at taking something that sounds inflammatory and running with it,” she says.

As Hier sees it, the study’s early end date likely speaks more to the nascent status of male birth control than anything.

“We’ve had many, many more years of experience in trials, and tweaking and [finding] various other regimens for women,” Hier says. “This is one of the more early studies [in men]. There’s lot of things that can be done, either using different medication or other doses that may make the side effects more acceptable.”

Hier also notes that, since female birth control has been around much longer, a woman isn’t forced to stick with a drug she doesn’t like; refining studies like this one may eventually allow men a similar choice. “[When] somebody comes in with mood side effects, you will often try something different, because for women there are alternatives,” she says.

Not everyone is taking Hier’s view, though. (Just search “male birth control” on Twitter for proof.) Holly Grigg-Spall, who wrote Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, mentioned a double standard in an interview with Verily.

“I’m not advocating that men do use a hormone-based contraceptive—as clearly, from the studies, we know it to be no better than the female versions,” Grigg-Spall said. “The point is that men are not given the choice. They are, essentially, being protected from the same side effects women have suffered for some 60 years.”

Choice is one area in which Hier and Grigg-Spall agree. “I think it’s really great news,” Hier says of the shot’s promising results. “The more choice, the better.”