The female contraceptive pill has been available through the NHS for more than 50 years. It has become a habitual part of sexual relationships for many people, particularly among students, with surveys showing 64 percent of women between 19 and 24 years old to take it. Nonetheless, the contraceptive pill is not yet free from controversy, and many important social questions remain to be discussed. A considerable number believe that the pill has not played quite the role it should have in promoting sexual freedom and equality; the fact that there is a female contraceptive pill but no male equivalent is seen to have had a detrimental effect on sexual equality.
The female pill has certainly played an important role in transforming the sexual landscape, allowing women greater sexual freedom. The prospect of untimely pregnancy, of course, has always been more concerning for women than men. But while the pill allows peace of mind, it also perpetuates gender inequality, placing a significant burden of responsibility on women. Many feminists argue that the widespread availability of the pill, which is free on NHS prescription, and the misconception that it offers no side effects, has led to the belief that women alone should be in charge of contraception. Concerns over timing and safety are left to women, while men are able to experience a greater separation between sex and reproduction; when unplanned pregnancies do occur, too often the blame falls on the woman.
But if society agrees that men and women have an obligation to any foetus carried to term, it should also be agreed that the duty of contraception is a mutual task. Leading biologist Debra Wolgemuth, at Columbia University Medical Centre, said, “Contraception should be a two-way street; too much of the birth control pressure falls on women.” The solution, it seems, is through the creation of a male contraceptive pill.
For decades, the male contraceptive pill has been the Holy Grail of research into contraception. So far, however, scientists have struggled to come up with a safe, effective version. There have been serious concerns over the side effects of the male pill – particularly in its potential to cause a loss of libido. These concerns, of course, demand scrutiny, as many cite them as evidence of double sexual standards; after all, the female pill, in causing great hormonal changes, also has many side effects, yet women are expected to take it anyway.
There is an urgent social need for a great variety of contraceptive methods, especially those that place a greater burden of responsibility on men. But while this discovery has so far eluded scientists, there are signs that a breakthrough may be closer than expected. Last August, scientists in the US came a step closer to the much-anticipated male contraceptive pill, when they managed to successfully test a drug on mice, making them infertile without hampering their sex drive.
Although the path between the laboratory and resulting pill is likely to be long, the creation of a male contraceptive pill will have a strong social impact, and will mean that the responsibility of contraception can be shared equally between men and women.