A Topical Male Birth Control Gel Is Going Into Clinical Trials, & It's About Time

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Like many other humans with uteruses and ovaries, I've relied on various contraceptive options to remain kid-free over the years, and it's meant that I was also able to wait to have kids until I actually felt ready. But the side effects of hormonal birth control hit me pretty hard, and when my partner got a vasectomy after our twins were born, it was a huge relief. Unfortunately, there aren't many good options available for those not quite ready to make such a permanent step, but next spring, a topical male birth control gel is going into clinical trials after several years in development, and it could be a total game-changer.

According to Science Alert, researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development are planning to begin clinical trials for the gel — which contains synthetic versions of progesterone and testosterone — in April 2018. And it sounds like there's good reason to be hopeful about the outcome: the gel that's about to be tested started out as two separate gels that have since been combined, and in previous clinical trials in 2012, the gels used were shown to be very successful at lowering the number of sperm in semen for a few days at a time when used together.

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Researchers are expecting the combined gel to be just as effective, and if it is, it will mean that it will be that much more convenient for men to actually use. What's more though is that it actually does sound convenient: each day, about half a teaspoon of the gel (which is said to be "quick-drying") needs to be applied to the skin, ideally away from the genital area (the upper arm would do nicely).

In other words, it's pretty much comparable to taking a birth control pill each day — something women have been doing for generations. And as reproductive health scientist Régine Sitruk-Ware explained to the MIT Technology Review, the fact that the gel actually lowers sperm levels for about 72 hours means that "there is a bit of forgiveness" if a dose is occasionally forgotten (though, as with any birth control method, its effectiveness ultimately depends on proper use).

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Unfortunately, even if the gel turns out to be an overwhelming success, it will likely still be a long while before it's actually available for purchase. According to the MIT Technology Review, once the trial begins in April, it will run for about four years, and will involve more than 400 couples in six different countries (the United States, the U.K., Italy, Sweden, Chile, and Kenya).  If all goes well, that will hopefully mean men will have a simple, reliable birth control option available to them, though National Institute of Child Health and Human Development contraception development program director Diana Blithe noted that, even then, it will still take "several years" before you can pick it up in your local drugstore.

Despite the wait, it seems way past time that contraception progresses beyond being viewed mainly as the responsibility of the person who can actually get physically pregnant. Not only is it an unfair burden — especially if you can't tolerate hormonal birth control — but it also reinforces the idea that men don't have to care as much about preventing unwanted pregnancies. Not only should that decision absolutely be shared between couples, all individuals should have the ability to take ownership of their fertility and reproductive choices, and men should have more options available to let them do that beyond condoms and sterilization.

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But as much as the development of new male birth control options would be be a benefit to, well, pretty much everyone, it might take a little bit of convincing to make male birth control mainstream. According to CNN, a Nov. 2016 study found that a male birth control shot, administered every eight weeks, was both effective at preventing pregnancy, and safe. Yet the study was ultimately cut short due to the side effects reported by participants, like changes in libido, acne, mood swings, and depression — aka, many of the same side effects women taking hormonal birth control have been experiencing for years — making it a pretty hard sell.

But that doesn't mean the gel is doomed to fail: Florida-based urologist Dr. Jamin Brahmbhatt told Healthline that "there definitely is an interest" in better birth control options among the male patients he sees given that the options they do have are limited. And while older men might be more likely to be put off by the idea of taking birth control themselves, Brahmbhatt says that millennial men seem much more open to it, which is definitely encouraging.

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It's still frustrating though that it is nearly 2018 and yet, birth control is still viewed largely as a woman's issue — and that it won't be changing any time soon. Given that my baby-making years are behind me, my husband and I have at least been able to take advantage of the permanent options open to us, and that's been so helpful. I'd like to think though that by the time my son and daughter are grown, contraception could actually be seen as an equal responsibility of both genders, and that they'll both have plenty of effective options to use as a result).  

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