Hermione Eyre: The male pill could change the future ...

The man wants to quit taking the damn thing - he thinks the pill is making him fat

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Reports this week indicated that the male contraceptive pill is closer than ever to point of sale. A new "instant" pill that stops sperm production for approximately 12 hours is being pioneered at King's College London, and should be on the market in five years' time. Male hormone patches, injections and pills are also coming on apace. This news has inspired in me many bright hopes for the future. What good effects could the male pill have on society?

Imagine, if you will, an office in London, 2026. Two male clerks are reclining upon their thermally responsive beanbags, inhaling vitamins and taking 10 minutes out to natter about everyday things, such as the price of personal aeroplanes, the benefits of growing one's own pineapples, and - this subject appears to interest them the most - the different types of contraceptive pill. (Note they do not call it "the male pill": this is the future, remember, and that phrase is now considered as old fashioned as "lady doctor", or, for that matter, "pounds sterling".)

Their conversation goes like this. One of the two men favours the daily "combined" progesterone and testosterone pill, which he has been taking continuously for almost a year; soon he will stop and it will again be his girlfriend's turn to be on it for a year. This sharing of the burden of contraception between couples is considered normal. Because it helps even out hormonal disruption, and promotes understanding between the sexes, it has been credited by the liberal press for the fall in divorce rates. However, the man still really wants to quit taking the damn thing, he says. (In a futuristic utopia, complaining still occurs.) And he thinks the pill is making him fat. (Ditto delusions).

The other man, for his part, puts a spin of bravado on the whole business. He takes the "instant" pill as and when he needs it. "I don't find it has any bad effect on me," he says, with a swagger. "I've been on it for, like, years." Taking the contraceptive pill has, you see, become a sign of virility among young men. Some of them even flaunt the distinctive red hormone patches on their wrists or temples. It shows that they are progressive, daring and in demand. (This sounds a bit scary. But never mind, at least the male pill is a success.)

In fact, the cultural shift has even made its way into the cinema. Winner of the Oscar for Best Film 2026 was an erotic sci-fi movie about a young Lycra-clad male space adventurer called Barbarelli. Very old people who could remember the original film said the special effects had got a lot better since Jane Fonda's day. Some commentators said Barbarelli celebrated the unprecedented control that men now had over their reproductive capability. They said it was a token of male liberation. Other commentators said liberation always came at a price, and that Barbarelli was just a male intergalactic sexual plaything, and a bad role model for boys. (Funny, isn't it, how when you try to look into the future you can't help seeing the past?)

But back to the office clerks. They press the gravitational force-field button and are winched effortlessly out of their beanbags. As they glide down the corridor, one asks the other casually if he has any plans to come off the pill? This is a now not uncommon question between males. Since contraception is more evenly shared, so is childcare; paternity leave has become as substantial as maternity leave. "Nah," replies his colleague. But secretly, privately, he has been considering doing just that. He would like to have a child, more, possibly, than his girlfriend would ... (Oh dear. I thought this was meant to be a utopian vision?)

The two men wander over to the news terminal in the hall. "Sexually transmitted diseases reach all-time high", reads the headline. The two men sigh. This is a familiar news item. The rise of the male pill has led to a decline in condom use. (Utopia? Dystopia!)

And there's more bad news. Another headline: "Married woman says, 'I wasted my fertile years'". A woman whose husband misled her, claiming to be off the pill when he was actually taking it secretly, is suing him. There have been so many cases of this kind that a new breed of lawyer has emerged: the paternity lawyer.

Back in 2006, it suddenly seems like a relief that the male pill isn't quite ready for public consumption yet. But this is because the future is always a weird and threatening place, not because the male pill is a bad thing, per se. Like all important new medical advances, it will bring about a degree of social change, but the good effects should outweigh the bad.

If people don't trust each other, then a male pill could possibly be put to bad use, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. For women, it will be a great help with the hassle of contraception; for men, it will grant a new measure of control. And enhanced control over your body and its reproductive functions cannot be a bad thing; the more wanted a child is, the better start in life it has. That's a constant that is unlikely to change, even in 2026.

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