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Potential options for male birth control prompt discussion on gender roles

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Frederica Shih — THE BATTALION

For men, a surgical vasectomy and the use of condoms have been the only two birth control options. The development of an alternative option, Vasalgel, could change that.
Developed by a nonprofit organization called the Parsemus Foundation, Vasalgel is a gel that would be injected into the vas deferens, the part of the penis through which the sperm flows. This gel would block the sperm flow, temporarily preventing any sperm from coming into contact with the uterus until a second injection, conducted at the patient’s time of choice, would reverse the process.
The non-hormonal product is still in early trial stages — it has been studied on rabbits with successful results and tests have begun on baboons. Clinical trials aren’t planned to begin until sometime this year, but news of Vasalgel’s existence has sparked a discussion on whether it is the responsibility of the man to take part in protecting both himself and his sexual partners from pregnancy.
Rhonda Rahn, instructional assistant professor in the health and kinesiology department, said the traditional placement of this responsibility on the woman may be because of how much easier it is to prevent a pregnancy by targeting the woman’s body.
“Which is easier to control: One egg per month or 200 to 700 million sperm every time you ejaculate?” Rahn said. “It’s easier to control the one egg per month, so that’s why the birth control has been mainly geared toward women. It’s more difficult to control that many sperm.”
Rahn said the question of how open men are to playing a role in protecting himself and his sexual partners from pregnancy is one that is not well received.
“I’ve asked that question to whole classes that I’ve taught and a lot of the men in those classes are like, ‘There’s no way I’d ever take a birth control, especially if it’s going to affect my sperm count,’” Rahn said. “I think in order for that to happen, there has to be a lot of education. We’d have to educate men and women on their sex, their ability to have children, it’s not going to affect their masculinity, it’s not going to affect anything like that.”
Associate sociology professor Sarah Gatson said although there may be a contingent of men who are ready and willing to have this procedure, there is more of an incentive for women to use birth control because of how much more it benefits them than it would men.
“I think if it was a shot that would keep men from contracting sexually transmitted diseases, I think they would be right there,” Gatson said. “Especially in places where those things are endemic. But women still physically take on a higher risk if it’s pregnancy that’s on the table.”
Because Vasalgel is a multi-year injection, men would need to have it administered every few years as opposed to, or in addition to, women using birth control on a more regular basis.
“A shot every five to 10 years is not the same psychologically as a vasectomy,” Gatson said. “And this is as if it were permanent, but you can reverse it. And so I think as an option, I think it would be more popular than a vasectomy.”
Gatson said the introduction of this product to the market would call for a sociological adjustment on how people view gender roles because of the way people associate parenthood more to motherhood.
“Try to think through it more in terms of what does fatherhood actually mean in public discourse, in the law and in people’s everyday lives,” Gatson said. “And until you know those things and the way that they connect and disconnect in particular situations, I think it’s really hard to predict whether men are going to be beating down the door for a birth control.”
Leigh Szucs, health and kinesiology graduate teaching assistant with an emphasis in sexual health, said the risks that a man would face if this product were to be successfully released for use would be similar to the risks that women take when using contraceptives.
“There’s always going to be a risk in terms of your reproductive health when you’re putting anything artificial in your body, whether it be hormonal or non-hormonal product, whether it be an injection, a pill, an IED,” Szucs said.
A worry some birth control users face is having the freedom to reverse the effect when they’re ready to reproduce. Szucs said this concern will still be felt by some if a form of male birth control is approved.
“Every person’s body is going to react a little bit differently, unfortunately there’s not a ‘If you take the pill then x amount of years later you will have no problems with infertility’ or ‘If you do this form of birth control, you’re guaranteed to always be pregnant or not be pregnant as a result,’” Szucs said.

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