What’s the Deal With Male Birth Control?

Brighid Flynn •Feb 16, 2023

When it comes to contraceptive options for men and women, it’s an uneven playing field. From pills to patches and even implants, there are various options for us women to prevent getting pregnant. Meanwhile, condoms remain the only medically-approved contraception for men, that is, aside from vasectomies, which have actually seen an uptick since the federally-protected right to abortion was revoked in June 2022. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic Center for Male Fertility saw a more than 2x increase in vasectomy inquiries from July 2021 to July 2022.

Researchers are now looking into both hormonal and non-hormonal alternatives for male birth control, which will hopefully even out the responsibilities between women and their male partners when it comes to preventing pregnancy

two packages of condoms

Male Birth Control Release Date

One of the major complications, or natural setbacks, to formulating hormonal contraception for men has been the basic human biology of the male reproductive system. Women can only produce one to two eggs for fertilization each month. Ejaculation, however, can have more than 100 million sperm in it.  

There have also been previous trials that were started and stopped because of concerns regarding potentially dangerous side effects. For instance, in the 1990s, the World Health Organization funded trials for a male hormonal contraceptive that used high doses of testosterone. The research found, however, that the drugs caused harmful side effects, such as a potentially increased risk of prostate cancer and toxicity in the heart, liver, and kidney. 

Recent efforts have been more successful in getting past Phase I trials with minimal side effects. Now let's take a look at what we can expect to see with male birth control developments.

Male Birth Control Gel and Other Potential Options

As it stands now, there is a topical gel that is farthest along in its development. The gel gets applied to the man’s shoulder blades — sounds odd, we know — where it inhibits testosterone production in the testes. This stymies sperm production while maintaining sexual drive. Sperm levels return to normal if the male stops using the gel for 4 months. 

This topical gel is the first male birth control product to make it past the initial steps in the clinical trial process. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires the trial process to consist of several phases and subphases. Currently in Phase IIb, if this hormonal birth control makes it to Phase III, it will be the first of its kind. 

There are non-hormonal male birth control options in the works as well. Some of this research is looking at the role of vitamin A in sperm development and the sperm’s ability to make it to the egg. In fact, according to a recent study, a drug aimed at treating eyes immobilized sperm and was 100% effective in preventing pregnancy in mice for 2½ hours, encouraging researchers that it may work as a contraceptive for men in the future.

While these options are not as far along in clinical trials as the gel, they offer some hope and encouragement that more options will eventually become available to men.  

white bottle spewing liquid gel

The Future of Birth Control for Men

Even with current advancements being made in the world of male contraceptives, it could still be another five years before anything of this nature becomes accessible to men as an over-the-counter option for birth control. 

Five years certainly sounds far off, but it is reassuring that several products are in the works and being backed by large companies. Finally, it seems that the burden of birth control will no longer fall solely on women and will be a shared responsibility among heterosexual couples. And that, at least, is something we can get excited about!  

Brighid Flynn is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia where she lives with her husband and puppy. She is just beginning her journey toward motherhood.