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Shooting Blanks

For better or worse, modern science has left women responsible for all but two methods of birth control. Women, I’m sure, would love to offload some of that responsibility on men. The problem is that many men dislike condoms, for obvious reasons, but consider vasectomy a little too permanent. So far, their gender hasn’t had any alternatives.

But soon it might, in the form of a male variation of the birth control pill. The first medicinal male contraceptive will likely be a subdermal, hormone-releasing implant, and it could be available in five years. The hormone is progestin, which is also found in the current women’s pill. In men, it blocks chemical signals from the pituitary gland that tell the testes to secrete testosterone and produce sperm. Of course, low testosterone can mean mood swings, dwindling sex drive, and the ego-sagging possibility of shrunken testicles. So supplementary testosterone will be necessary.

The most advanced clinical trial – which began early last year with 350 European men and is run by the drug companies Schering and Organon – is testing matchstick-sized implants in the upper arm. Testosterone is injected in the buttocks every 10 to 12 weeks. In the trial, a doctor gives the shots. However, a prescribed product will allow women to, literally, stick it to a husband or boyfriend.

Earlier trials showed that progestin stops sperm production in most men, but only after two months of treatment. Sperm-making is back to normal within three months of the treatment’s end. In these trials, the treatment was about 98 percent effective in preventing preg-nancy, a rate comparable to the female pill’s.

It’s questionable to what degree men will want a drug that interferes with the production of their beloved testosterone. Even if men agree to the drug in principle, they may not go for the implants and needles. Those men who prefer their own pill will have to wait at least 10 years before it becomes available.

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