This week, scientists announced that a test trial to introduce male birth control has ended after several male participants dropped out due to side effects including muscular cramping, mood swings, acne and changes in sexual libido.
“Well, isn’t that what women experience monthly?” Many bemoaned and they’re not wrong. Every month, painful menstrual cramps, headaches and mood swings plague those who menstruate, many of whom are women. Moreover, a recent study confirmed what some had been theorizing for years: that birth control may lead to increased depression and anxiety in users.
Yet, male birth control couldn’t be adequately tested to come on the market due these undesirable side effects plaguing male participants.
Admittedly, for myself, I felt disappointed about hearing the news. My painful menstruation, ovarian cysts and potential endometriosis has locked me into a strict birth control regimen since I was 16. Even then, the birth control cannot suppress the terrible mood swings that come at least one week before my expected period, and then the pain during my period week that often leaves me in bed and out of class and work. Even then, my pills might be the culprit that make me anxious and depressed during certain times of the month and then restless and activated during others.
Even my boyfriend, who read the study results to me over Skype, was disappointed, his face falling as he realized he may not be able to go on birth control himself. Although the possibility of me ever going off of hormonal treatment before I choose to have kids is slim due to my chronic pain, my boyfriend had already said he would be willing to share some of the burden of birth control and remove any tiny sliver of doubt we may have, should my birth control fail.
Reeling from a particularly bad bout of pain in my lower abdomen as I read the study, I found myself thinking: why are my undesirable side effects more permissible than for men? What does this study reveal about the bodies that are prioritized in the medical field?
The Double Standard in Medical Treatment
I wrote an article a few months ago exploring how doctors approach male and female pain. Overwhelmingly, women find that their pain is often lessened or ignored by doctors. I’ve experienced it–once even being told that my pain was “normal” for girls when it was really a sign of a painful and dangerous kidney infection.
And the consequences can be dire. In my research, I found that women who have signs of heart attacks are often misdiagnosed to be suffering from anxiety, with doctors leaning heavily on a stereotype that women are hysterical.
Which brings us back to birth control. The same research introduced me to a case of a woman with a ruptured ovarian cyst. Unfortunately, this resonated with me as this is an all-too-common occurrence for me. Yet, Rachel, in the Atlantic article detailing her struggle with getting treated for her cyst, had her pain ignored for hours. Meanwhile, other women who have complained of lower abdominal pain, sometimes relating to their periods, have had this pain lessened or ignored by doctors due to the notion that is “normal” for women or those who menstruate. Pain is, somehow, permissible for women.
However, it would be misleading to assume that the men who took part in the male birth control study were just intolerant to pain. In fact, Vox took a deeper look into the effects of the birth control method being attempted on the test group and found that “two independent committees that were monitoring the trial’s safety data was concerned about the high number of adverse events the men reported…the rate of side effects in this study was higher than what women typically experience using hormonal birth control.” Therefore, the men in the study were experiencing an alarmingly high rate of side effects for a method being used to prevent pregnancy.
However, that said, it would be equally be misleading to assume that all birth control trials are created equal. PBS reported on the shady trials on women when birth control was first being tested. In 1955, George Pincus and John Rock conducted birth control pill studies on poor, uneducated women in Puerto Rico. PBS writes that, “the women had only been told that they were taking a drug that prevented pregnancy, not that this was a clinical trial, that the Pill was experimental or that there was a chance of potentially dangerous side effects.” Furthermore, a leading researcher in the trials reported back to Rock and Pincus that, although the pill was 100% effective, “17% of the women in the study complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain and vomiting. So serious and sustained were the reactions that [Pincus was told] that a 10-milligram dose of Enovid caused ‘too many side reactions to be generally acceptable.'”
Furthermore, when the pill came to the United States, cleared by the FDA in May 1960, trials continued in Puerto Rico after U.S. women complained of side effects, including risks of blood clotting, Suzanne White Junod, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s historian told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. Similarly, the pill was also used by psychiatric patients in Boston without their direct consent.
The pill’s history of exploiting the bodies of lower-class women and women of color doesn’t end there, either. The founder of Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger has been criticized before for her stance on eugenics. PBS wrote that Sanger’s eugenicist stance contributed to distrust among black communities of the pill, writing that, “some African Americans believed that Sanger’s motive was not to aid black women but to eliminate future black generations.”
Lingering Sexism Today
Of course, it is now known that there are stricter ethical restrictions on human test trials. Nonetheless, the double standard of healthcare for men and women is still prevalent today. Just this year the first known study linking depression and the birth control pill was studied. Previously, the suspected link between depression and birth control was watered down into the side effect of “mood swings.” According to The Washington Post, this study found that “Women who used the combined birth control pill, a mix of estrogen and progestin, were 23 percent more likely to be prescribed anti-depressants than nonusers, and progestin-only pills raised the likelihood by 34 percent.” Even The Washington Post article quotes a Tweet by a woman on the study, summing up the feelings of many: “It’s not just in your head.”
The ceased study on male birth control reveals the double standard we hold in testing and implementing healthcare. The bodies of white, cisgender men are prioritized over women, people of color and those with mental illness. While it’s a nice thought to remove the burden of birth control off of those with uteruses, the healthcare industry needs to focus first on improving the experiences of those who use birth control to treat illness, pain, as well as prevent pregnancy, instead of continuing to prioritize historically privileged bodies.
**This article often uses “women” to describe those who can get pregnant, but it’s important to note that not all women have uteruses and not all women can get pregnant. Moreover, women are not the only ones who can get pregnant.