The future of contraception

Men's birth-control role may increase; women will get more options
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  November 9, 2011

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Whether your interest is personal — Get me off these hormones! — or policy-related — Global population is growing too fast! — the matters discussed at last month’s Future of Contraception Initiative conference in Seattle matter to you.

True, the US birth rate has steadily fallen since the recession hit in 2008 (down a full 10 percent from 2007) and fertility rates in industrialized countries are in general decline. But global population is projected to hit nine billion by the middle of this century. Population growth in Africa and parts of Asia is reaching crisis proportions — in some African countries, women bear an average of more than six children apiece, and only one in 10 African women uses birth control. Increased population means increased strain on resources, more crowding, more pollution, and more international health problems.

To this end, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced its renewed commitment to contraceptive research, symbolized by its co-sponsorship of the Future of Contraception event. It is a high-profile acknowledgement that “population pressures have a negative impact on health just as much as infectious disease,” as John Amory, professor and researcher at the University of Washington Medical Center, puts it.

Meanwhile, after declining for more than two decades, the US abortion rate plateaued over the last three years. Activists on both sides of the abortion debate fear this could signal a reversal, a looming uptick in the termination of unplanned pregnancies. Some blame this trend on decreased use of contraception, which may be partly a result of Bush-era “abstinence-only” sex-ed policies.

A study by the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that gathers data on abortion, showed that the abortion rates were stalled at 19.6 per 1000 women. In the Washington Post, Guttmacher research associate Rachel Jones made the related case for contraception: “It’s kind of a wake-up call that we need to increase access to contraceptives services so we can continue to prevent unintended pregnancies and the decline in abortions can continue again.”

So-called “access” could refer to contraceptive price, clinic proximity, and convenience for the female user, but it could also refer to expanded options — the development of what Elaine Lissner, director of the Male Contraceptive Information Project, dubs “a contraceptive supermarket.” The more choices, the
better.

It was fitting that as the world’s seven billionth human was born late last month, a group of researchers met to discuss future choices: developments in male and female birth control.


The holy grail

Maybe it just comes down to this: You’re a woman who’s just filled your umpteenth prescription for the Pill or scheduled your upcoming IUD insertion or Depo shot, and you’re wondering, What the heck is taking so long? When is this going to get easier? Why have women shouldered the burden (i.e., enjoyed the liberation) of birth control for more than half a century? When will men at least have the option of taking on (i.e., benefiting from) some of that responsibility?

Or perhaps you’re a man, wanting to have more control over your own fertility, wanting to actively participate in family planning as one half of a long-term, monogamous partnership.

“They have two options,” Amory says. “They can have surgery on their scrotum” — vasectomy— “or they can wear a sheath” — condoms. Well, when you put it that way . . .

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