Contraception Redefined

By Jess Bird

When I went to student health services recently, I was asked by the nurse the common question, “Are you sexually active?” When I replied yes, she proceeded to ask me, “Are you on the pill, or using any other form of contraception?” I told her than on the rare occasion that I do have sex with men, I always use a condom. With a stern tone in her voice, she then continued to lecture me for about fifteen minutes on every better form of birth control on the books.

My doctor put me on the pill in 7th grade as a solution to cure the acne caused by none other than puberty itself. For years, I was an emotional rollercoaster, having PMS both pre, post, and during my period. The three month extended birth control was the worst of them all. It made me nauseous, it was a pain to remember to take at the same time every day, and I ruined countless pairs of underwear from spotting. Despite its many benefits, the pill may not be right for everyone.

Hormonal birth control methods offer an alternate, more permanent method to the pill and are nearly 100% efficient in preventing pregnancy. Some of these methods include: Implanon, a small rod implanted under the skin of the arm; UvaRing, a flexible ring inserted inside the vagina once a month; Ortho Evra, a patch put on the skin that looks like a bandaid; or Depo-Provera, an injection that consists of getting a shot in your butt every six weeks. Side effects include weight gain, bloating, dizziness, headache, tiredness, weakening of the joints, and even decreased sex drive. The IUD comes in the option of copper, which doesn’t include hormones, but commonly creates irregular, heavy periods for this first six months and can fall out of place, causing painful rips or tears in the uterus.

Interrupting ovulation and fertilization is a complex process that requires a degree of hormonal regulation, often impacting other areas of the body. Men produce 1,500 sperm cells per second; women are born with a limited amount of eggs that become infertile as they age. So why not stop the sperm from the source before it ever hits the egg in the first place? Because science, being a predominantly male dominated field, realized that it would be far more profitable and easier on themselves to shift the focus from male to female contraception.

However, this was not always the case. Back in 40 AD, Dioscorides, a Greek physician and botanist, discovered the use of hemp seeds from cannabis sativa to reduce sperm count to nearly half, a method that was paralleled in medieval Persia as well. In India, doctors used ethanol extracts from the Neem Tree in their practices of Ayurvedic medicine, and the Chinese have been using an herbal plant called Lei Gong Teng for centuries now.

The U.S. has just now started to produce a male contraceptive that may change who has to take on the responsibility of birth control. Vasalgel, a reversible, non-hormonal polymer that blocks the passing of sperm, has begun testing and is expected to be on the market by 2017 but must first pass the codes of production and safety by the FDA. The treatment involves the injection of a polymer contraceptive directly into the vas deferens, the duct that conveys sperm from the testicle to the urethra. This polymer will then stop any sperm that attempt to pass through the tube. Unlike the pill, Vasalgel is non-hormonal and only requires a single treatment in order to be effective for up to three years. This procedure is not the first of its kind. RISUG, reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance, was developed by Dr. Sujoy Guha in India over 15 years ago. So far, it has only been tested on animals, but the results were a success.

The development of this form of contraception has also hit a roadblock from the medical industry, as pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to fund research methods for male birth control, as it would tamper with the demand and sales of the multi-billion dollar female contraception industry. Instead, the Parasmus Foundation, which is spearheading this initiative, must seek funding from small scale private social investors, while development and access to female birth control continues to receive funding from large scale organizations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and U.S.A.I.D. If Vasalgel is a success, we may begin to see a shift in who in the relationship must take on the responsibility of birth control.