Time to Harness the Sperm

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 14, 2006 6:00 pm

More than four decades after the premier of the birth-control pill, we finally seem to be nearing a way to bridle the sperm cavalry that a pair of testicles produces—that is, the male pill. Scientists are trying to foil spermatogenesis from multiple angles. Some have achieved promising results with Adjudin, a compound derived from an anti-cancer drug, which inhibits sperm maturation. Others have identified a protein found exclusively on the sperm’s whip-like tail. They are searching for a drug that would inhibit that protein, paralyzing sperm so they can’t swim to the egg. And yet other researchers are pursuing the hormonal route, trying to manipulate the male endocrine system, just as today’s birth-control pills manipulate the female endocrine system. But when it comes to developing this type of pill, researchers pussyfoot because toying with hormones usually begets side effects. Giving men extra doses of testosterone, for instance, may block sperm production but also promotes oilier skin, acne, and weight gain, among other things.

Concerns about these effects are appropriate, but we cannot forget that women have borne (so to speak) the side effects of birth control for over 40 years. Today’s pills (which are far milder and safer than the warheads used in previous generations) have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer, and, among some groups, liver cancer. True, the pill has been shown to reduce rates of ovarian and endometrial cancers, but breast cancer claims far more casualties. And of course there are the less serious, but nonetheless irksome, spin-offs of synthetic hormones: weight gain, acne, and mood swings, just to name a few. It’s simply not fair that women have shouldered this burden alone for four decades.

Nor is it fair to men who stand on the periphery of reproductive control. Leaving birth control primarily in female hands only reinforces the notion that men are mere auxiliary players in procreation. Getting pregnant is the first step in parenting, and control over that first step sets the tone for all stages that follow. Women and men share equally important, albeit different, roles in childrearing, so why should the balance be off-kilter at the get-go? The current mood is that the issue of birth control is a done deal, a chapter already closed by the female pill. Pharmaceutical companies certainly aren’t in a mad scurry to develop a male pill as they prosper from the nearly 12 million American women taking the pill every day. The demand for more equitable birth control options must come from consumers, men and women, who want more equitable reproduction.

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