More than 60 years after its release, the contraceptive pill remains the most popular form of birth control other than condoms in the UK. And it’s easy to see why: the ability to pop a pill that puts women in control of their reproductive destiny is an alluring option – one that has transformed our sexual freedom and given us a more equal footing in the workplace thanks to the ability to have children on our own terms.
The pill may have founded a social revolution, but in many respects little has changed since it was first prescribed. There is still no viable alternative that allows men to take equal responsibility for reproduction – and it still carries serious associated health risks.
Like many young women, I once saw the pill as the default. I was given a prescription at the age of 18 with little more than a cursory run-through of the risks and a quick blood pressure check. I hopped on and off it throughout my early twenties, as my hormones and lifestyle demanded. But, at the age of 24, a mere two weeks after starting a prescription for a new pill, I was diagnosed with a major blood clot coagulating close to my heart.
My diagnosis was horribly unlucky; research suggests that only around 12 in 10,000 women taking the contraceptive pill will experience a similar side effect. However, with around 3 million women in the UK alone being prescribed the pill, these odds still seem frighteningly high. Even more concerning is the stark evidence that the newer so-called “third generation” of the drug is by far the most dangerous. This includes the pill that I began taking briefly before developing a blood clot, still a popular prescribing option for many GPs.
So today’s news that a male contraceptive equivalent has finally been deemed safe will be received well by many women disillusioned by the lack of reproductive options. It’s a signal that healthcare is finally recognising that the battle to find the right birth control is one that women fight throughout their lives, and that they shouldn’t have to do so alone. Responsible sex is everyone’s responsibility.
It could be another decade before the male pill is on the market, but in a medical landscape that is often disproportionately perilous for women, any kind of progress is encouraging.
Of course there are notable instances where men lose out in the medical lottery, such as in the case of suicide prevention and prostate cancer funding. But women still face a disproportionate uphill battle when it comes to support for our health. We are still widely mistrusted by doctors to report our symptoms, with female conditions such as autoimmune diseases and endometriosis often taking years to be identified in patients. We are still the more likely victims of misdiagnosis of serious conditions such as heart attacks, with mistakes in diagnoses up to 50 per cent higher for women. We are still forced through the indignities of our concerns being minimised, as exposed by the vaginal mesh scandal which left thousands of women in debilitating pain and sexually incapacitated for years before their complaints were listened to.
The road to a readily available male contraceptive pill will not be without its complications. As well as testing the long-term effects of the drug, researchers will have to contend with early evidence that only half of men recently surveyed would be willing to try out the method – and many women will be reticent to trust their partner with a responsibility that disproportionately impacts their bodies and their future.
But in spite of these challenges, today’s news is a sign of something more significant: it is a sign that reproductive medicine is finally being taken seriously.
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