Why That Male Birth Control Study Was *Actually* Canceled

There’s been considerable buzz recently about the male birth control study involving a hormonal contraceptive injection which began in 2008, but ended in 2011 due to undesirable side effects.

Everyone has been joking that men are finally realizing what women go through when they’re on hormonal birth control, that the guys in the studies are wimps, and that the whole thing is an example of inherent sexism (and yes, we at Berry even published a piece about it).

In actuality, this is a highly oversimplified view of what actually happened in the study. BuzzFeed Health reached out to Doug Colvard, PhD, a co-sponsor of the study to get the information on what actually happened, and the truth is, as usual, more complex than the popular narrative.

Here’s why the study was shut down:

When the study was reviewed for safety by its respective Data Safety and Monitoring Committee, certain side effects appeared more commonly than expected. Specifically, increased libido, mood disorders, muscle pain and acne.

But wait. What if these side effects had nothing to do with the trial?

Well, most of them actually did have something to do with the study. As reported by BuzzFeed Health, “Out of nearly 1,500 adverse events reported, about 39% were determined not to be related to the medication.” Which means that the majority of negative side effects were directly or indirectly related to the drug itself, including “one case of intentional overdose, and one case of irregular heartbeat after stopping the injections.”

So, the actual side effects were more serious (and surprising to researchers) than most people think.

Now, to be clear, the study itself was somewhat flawed.

Unlike most scientific studies, there was no placebo group (as no one wants to risk having sex with a birth control injection that absolutely doesn’t work). It should also be noted that no one was questioned about their history of depression or mood swings before the study began.

Essentially: the study was not perfect, but there was really no way it could be perfect .(Although, in my humble and naive opinion, it seems like questioning someone about their mental health history would be an important precursor to participating in a medical study, but WHATEVER, WHAT DO I KNOW.)

And as for that highly-touted bit about the the guys in the study complaining too much?

It turns out that only a small number of participants chose to voluntarily opt out of the drug trial. The twenty men who chose to drop out of the study did so due to undesirable side-effects — which is fairly de rigueur for a medical study. The majority (75%) of the men in the study, however, said they were satisfied with the drug, and would consider using it if it became available.

So … there weren’t even that many actual complaints from the participants.

So, why is there no male birth control injection right now?

The Data Safety and Monitoring Committee was concerned with the side effects, which were almost certainly linked to the new drug, and felt that more research was necessary before any sort of clinical trial could continue. The guys weren’t throwing up their hands and walking away, the researchers were just concerned with what they were seeing during the study.

“This is an early study of a new drug, and there are so many things we don’t know about it,” Dr. Jennifer Gunter, OB-GYN, told BuzzFeed Health. “You need to compare that with an equivalent study of birth control to have a comparison. But I don’t believe that there’s some kind of medical conspiracy to protect men from birth control side effects.”

Dr. Gunter also says that bashing the participants of the study is pretty counter-productive.

“Certainly if you want more men to enroll in these studies, calling the ones who report side effects wimps is not the way to go about it. That’s no way to further the goal of male contraception.”

Also, I feel the need to point out that, if you think that depression is a standard, acceptable side-effect of using hormonal birth control — perhaps you should be using a different form of birth control. Depression and severe mood swings aren’t just side-effects that you’re just supposed to “deal” with, and it’s slightly concerning that so many women are telling the male participants in this study to “suck it up.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the fact that hormonal contraceptives were created in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the intention of giving women unprecedented control over their fertility. At that point, hormonal contraception was not viewed as a burden, but rather a revolution in the control that women had over their bodies and their reproductive systems. Because birth control was originally conceived with this female-empowering goal in mind, it sort of makes sense why the idea of male birth control wasn’t on the forefront of people’s minds  — and why it’s taken so long for a male birth control study to even exist.

So, in short, perhaps we shouldn’t rag on the male participants of this study, and just leave the conclusions to the actual medical professionals. Sound good?


Related-ish: 10 Women Talk About Their Gynecological Fears

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