Looking for progress on the birth control front

Sometimes I get the feeling that hardly anyone under 50 reads some of these posts. In that sense, talking about birth control might seem sort of, well, theoretical for this crowd. (Really important back in the day, less so now, hmm?)

But that’s what hit me about a couple of things I ran across recently: where are the big new developments, the “finally!” breakthroughs in something so basic and important in so many lives, all around the world?

It seems to me the last game-shifter was the oral contraceptive pill. It was never perfect. Even modern versions still present health complications and ‘the pill’ as a method of birth control is now over 50 years old. (Seriously? No major breakthroughs since 1960? That’s nuts.)

One recent article sounded potentially promising in the “do it naturally” department. According to Maclean’s Magazine, researchers are exploring the properties of curcumin – a chemical component of turmeric, which gives that spice its characteristic bright saffron color.

Dr. Rajesh Naz, (“professor and vice-chair in the department of obstetrics and gynecology as well as microbiology, immunology and cell biology at West Virginia University, in Morgantown”) grew up in India where turmeric is well-known and much consumed. Compounds found in turmeric inhibit fast-growing cells (think cancer and sperm). According to Macleans:

He and his team have conducted various trials of curcumin as a contraceptive. In vitro, they added it to both human and mouse sperm. Within minutes, curcumin had the effect of crippling the sperm, rendering sperm cells unable to swim. Curcumin also had the effect of disabling sperm’s ability to fertilize an egg. In the lab experiments, none of the human or mouse eggs that were incubated with curcumin were successfully fertilized. Without curcumin, about 75 per cent of the eggs were fertilized.

Yeah, yeah. Mice. In vitro. Big whoop. What about where it counts? Well, there’s more work ahead, but Naz is hopeful:

Ultimately, if it works in humans as well as he thinks, a vaginal curcumin suppository used once a month should be all a woman needs for full contraception. Not only that, but Naz believes it will also help stop sexually transmitted diseases from spreading between partners. “It may be better than a condom,” he says. His lab has found that the same dose of curcumin that inhibits sperm also curtails the growth of bacteria, though these results aren’t published yet.

Condoms. Photo: Robert Elyov, CC some rights reserved

Speaking of condoms – anything new there? They are tried, they are true, sort of. (The CDC says “Male condoms are 82–98% effective at preventing pregnancy”). For anyone who’d really rather not get pregnant that 82% side of the range looks a tad terrifying. For that (and other reasons) condoms can be hard to love.

Well, as reported in Slate and other media coverage, no less than Bill Gates is trying to push progress in that area too.

Bill Gates’ latest charitable contribution in the field of public health: $100,000 to the inventor of a condom that actually feels good. Grand Challenges in Global Health, a research foundation established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is offering the grant money for the best “testable hypothesis” for “the next generation condom,” one that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure.” The goal is to eliminate one of the major barriers to condom use: “From the male perspective,” the call for entries says, “condoms decrease pleasure as compared to no condom, creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable.”

That challenge and its parameters are explained here.

I say bully for Bill and Melinda Gates! Living up to their foundation’s stated goal “We believe every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

Speaking from the peanut gallery, maybe that prize should be even bigger? Sure, $100,000 is a nice start. But isn’t this important enough to make it really exciting? Like, (Dr. Evil voice and pinkie gesture) “one MILLION dollars!”?

Why does this picture seems relatively unchanged across a half century? Just take the old line about sex, drugs and rock & roll and look at what’s happened to music. OK, artists need to get paid and that’s a problem. But a whole record library on a tiny device! Distribution, access, storgage – it’s a revolutionary change.

Drugs have not stayed static either, just look at products for erectile disfunction, for example. (Men being able to have even more sex did not strike me as humanity’s most important pharmaceutical gap. But, of course, money and demand are what makes new drugs appear.)

And the first one in that troika? Sex? The biggest revolution in our lifetime there was AIDS, which only served to make condoms more important. Where’s the kind of advancement that music and drugs got?

I often conclude posts by asking “and how do you handle this in your own life?” Not going there this time!

I will ask, though, why has there been such slow progress on developing safe, convenient, affordable birth control?

Is the problem that hard? Or has it simply not been given the right amount of attention?

I hope someone wins that Gates prize for the next generation condom. And other advancements come along too.

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8 Responses to “Looking for progress on the birth control front”

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  1. Ken Hall says:

    Lucy, As a member of the geriatric crowd who has been bucking the homo sapiens party line of “go forth and multiply”, for 50+ years, I want to “commend” you for broaching a subject so near and dear to my thought processes. I have no biological children; but, I do have 5 step daughters from two marriages.

    I agree with your contention that a $100K prize to create a better manhood trap is ludicrously insignificant. I wounder how many hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars have been expended to enable the drug merchants the capability to produce the various ED enhancement drugs that have flourished in the last 20 years or thereabout.

    I have for a long time pushed my concept of a really, really viable contraceptive, one that would chemically sterilize “MEN” voluntarily or not. Men are in the main all for foisting the responsibility, of preventing their “boys will be boys” activity of “sowing their wild oats” from impregnating “girls”, onto the girls. Why should the religiously anointed head/king of the family/couple/ unit be required to take responsibility for his “natural” actions? It is obviously apparent that throughout the human critter societies which cover the Earth, virtually, all place a “MAN’S” right to procreate far and away above any rights that girls/women are accorded to live a safe un-abused life as well. This proclivity to reproduce on the part of men is obviously a major component of the exponential human population explosion taking place NOW.

    To the question of why has the development of a better condom been experiencing short shrift. To what end is it of value? Most major religions are against the use of such and nearly half of the humans (the men) disdain their use, especially in societies which value men far and away over girls/women. In my opinion Bill and Melinda are just further demonstrating what little regard MEN have for girls/women with this hideously insignificant offer.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Improved condoms and improved anything in the area of birth control haven’t made much progress because many if not most of the anti-abortion gang sees birth control as almost the same thing and for some the exact same thing as abortion.
    If you go deep into the teachings of the Catholic Church, any and all sex that doesn’t remain open to procreation is a Mortal Sin. In Catholic teaching, sex is not for fun and it isn’t even about love. It is all about procreation.
    Procreation is so darned important for the Church that it will easily grant an annulment to a marriage if one of the partners is found to be sterile.
    For the above stated reasons, don’t ever expect the Catholic Church to marry gays or lesbians.

  3. Mervel says:

    I don’t think you can lay it on the Church very few people are paying attention today on that front anyway. Technological progress in different areas proceeds based on what people are studying and yes the potential for revenue. But anyway Lucy brings up a good point; things have not really changed in this area for 50 years, condoms are actually much older than fifty years. I think more emphasis should be put on a male oral contraceptive for example. It would be much more effective to make males impotent, I am sure Ken would agree. We need to shift the onus for birth control toward men.

  4. Lucy Martin says:

    There are so many non-Catholics – and so many non-observant Catholics – that I’m inclined to agree the current state of birth control can’t be blamed on “the Church”.

    Without getting mired down in the abortion debate, I have to wonder: did safe/legal abortion remove the most pressing motivation to develop 100% reliable birth control?

    I mean, the way many non-abstinent people operate now, birth control becomes the first line of defense. Should the primary method fail, abortion becomes the fall-back safeguard.

    If the only choices when birth control fails were still 1) an illegal abortion and attendant risks, 2) a baby in 9 months, or 3) a baby that goes up for adoption, well, I think more effort and $$$ would go into better birth control!

    China, for example, should logically be leading this research. But there’s no real need. Sadly, it’s easier to offer (or impose) abortion and sterilization, particularly in the case of pregnancies the state doesn’t want continued.

    Better birth control could advance the position that abortion should be “safe, legal – and rare”.

    As for which gender should be responsible, I think the person who doesn’t want an unplanned baby had best take steps on her or his “end”.

    Men and women have been known to be careless, to be at cross purposes, or to lie. (He: “Don’t worry, I’ve had a vasectomy” She: “It’s fine, I’m on the pill”)

    If you are not ready to parent, you should “own the problem” to avoid unwanted outcomes, including STDs.

    Having said that, many cultures still deny females any power to exercise sexual/reproductive choice, adding to the problem.

    A Gates prize-winning condom (that men like just fine) could be a tremendous step forward there. (And here!)

  5. mervel says:

    Maybe? I think an oral contraceptive for men will always be preferred however. Now it does nothing against disease. However I think we should look at faster and easier testing for STD’s as another breakthrough.

    I do think as long as people have sex with people they don’t know or have just met you are always going to have problems and issues. I have never used a condom in my life, but I have sex with a person I know who has no diseases and who if they got pregnant would be fine by me( odds are low). But anyway I think this comes back to how we think about sex and relationships, I am not sure technology will solve all of our problems?

  6. Ellen Beberman says:

    Check this out:http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/04/05/court-orders-fda-to-make-emergency-contraception-available-over-the-counter-for-all-ages/
    After 10+ years of delay women and men can buy emergency contraception OTC. This seems like a big deal.

  7. Lucy Martin says:

    Ellen, funny you should post that link. I was just reading about that same development (by way of NPR).

    The so-called morning after pill has long been available without a prescription in Canada. I gather some provinces require it to be kept behind the counter so the pharmacist can contribute their knowledge to the the purchase. (In terms of safe use, not morality.) Other provinces apparently sell it right off the shelf.

    I would agree this development in the U.S. will offer more tools toward the goal of preventing unwanted pregnancies.

  8. Ellen Beberman says:

    Lucy,
    I think getting it out from behind the counter is the whole point. It’s galling that Obama, via HHS Sectretary Sebelius, blocked this from happening for so long, and would presumably have continued to do so indefinitely. Perhaps Canada will follow suit.