birth control

Imagine a World in Which Men Took the Pill

A man on the Pill
A man on the Pill Photo: Getty Images

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine just announced that non-injection male birth control is in the works, and that it might be here any day now.

Or in 2018. Or maybe it’s 2020, I can’t remember. How many times have we heard that male birth control is “in the works?” So fucking many. This time around, researchers are hoping that the concept will be “free of side effects.” Ha! Free of side effects? Yes, yes, by all means, let’s make sure whatever men must ingest to remain child-free should have no side effects. We wouldn’t want them to suffer from headaches, nausea, mood swings, excessive weight gain, or blood clots. That would never do!

Believe me, if men really wanted birth control, they’d have it already. Carl Djerassi, the “father” (heh) of oral contraceptives (for women, obvs) said in 2013 that there is no call for a male oral contraceptive, and that if it existed, men would be likely to blame all sorts of things on it — erectile dysfunction, general lack of virility.

But imagine if cheap, effective male oral contraceptives did exist. Would that change the way men approach pregnancy — and parenthood? As a society, we still collectively believe that preventing pregnancy is almost completely a woman’s responsibility. And this thinking often carries through into parenthood, resulting in a lifetime of holding mothers more responsible for children than fathers.

I’m not here to deny biology: Women do carry the babies (for now), and they are often the sole food source for the first year of the baby’s life. I love that! I am happy to be the “special” parent — it feels good to me. But biology, we’ve all pretty much agreed, can be tweaked. We humans have been tinkering with nature forever, and it’s resulted in some awesome things: cities, jobs, not starving to death, not having to hunt for dinner every day. We’ve come a long way from our nomadic, prehistoric origins, wiping out diseases and minor ailments every step of the way. So while some things — like pregnancy — remain relatively unchanged, lots of others have changed, and, most people would argue, for the better.

My daughter’s father sees her more than I saw my own dad. My own dad saw his father more than his dad has seen his. Men are almost always present for the birth of their children now: that was not the case even 45 years ago. That’s progress, as far as most of us are concerned. But the great thing about humanity is that there is never enough progress.

When oral contraceptives were approved for women in 1960, they caused a revolution. And since then, decades of feminist thinking and a push to recognize the rights of LGBTQ people have blown apart the concept of the nuclear family. We expect to control when we have kids, now, and we expect the right to choose who to raise them with. Under these terms, it makes sense that if a child has two parents, those two people should share the hard work and responsibility — and all the fun stuff, too — as equally as possible.

But the fact remains that though most women no longer “stay at home” to raise their children, and most do work outside the home, they continue to do the lion’s share of the housework. Even the most egalitarian couples often find that, once a child is born, traditional gender roles can sneak in pretty easily. And still, studies continue to find that even when both parents work outside the home equally, mothers still spend more time on their children than fathers do, whether engaging directly (playing with, reading to, bathing) or indirectly (scheduling doctors appointments, cooking meals, packing lunches, buying clothes).

Clearly, this doesn’t apply to everyone. But the statistics — while improving — continue to suggest that men in heterosexual relationships take less responsibility for their children than women do. And that’s probably not great for anyone.

So what if some pharmaceutical company finally did go against the grain (or the fear that it won’t be profitable) and develop male oral birth control? Would that make the field more even, liberating men from their biology the way the Pill liberated women?  If it became normal for men to pause every day to take a pill — and consequently think about how they were preventing themselves from becoming fathers — then maybe, over time, we would stop assuming, as a society, that bearing and raising children is a woman’s job first.