Despite a long list of options for female birth control the term “men’s birth control” is almost obsolete - unless we’re talking about actual, professionally recommended techniques like “outercourse,” which is like, who would do that? Women who choose birth control have to deal with side effects like lowered sex drive, weight gain, depression and nausea from the pills they take to change their body and brain chemistry. Meanwhile, us jerks can just throw a plastic sock on our broner and call it a day.
There is a birth control procedure for men which is, according to reports, 100% effective and lasts for ten to fifteen years with no further treatment. It’s reversible, inexpensive, has no major side effects and takes a fifteen minute visit to your doctor. Sounds too good to be true? Kind of. The procedure, currently called Vasalgel in North America, has been tested successfully in India for more than twenty years yet it hasn’t been approved by the World Health Organization nor any country in which it is currently going through trials. It’s future is so uncertain it may never make it to market. If this concerns you too much you might want to try out that outercourse we talked about earlier.
The original name for Vasalgel is RISUG (Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance) and it was discovered in the 1970s by an Indian doctor named Sujoy Guha. He was trying to make a pump that killed water-based bacteria as it went through a pipe, from below ground to above. The pipe idea didn’t work so he applied the technology to penises, naturally. By 1989 Dr. Guha created a nontoxic polymer gel that could be easily injected into the vas deferens. The gel clings to the walls of the vas deferens, coating its lining and tearing sperm apart as it passes through like carrots through a grater, as displayed in this charming YouTube video. The sperm, rendered completely ineffective, allows no chance of pregnancy. Which means no more worrying if you accidentally slip one past her goalie. But Dr Guha was criticized by the World Health Organization in the 90s and his studies were temporarily canned, forcing him to start over from scratch. Currently RISUG is only available to Indian men who live within range of the testing facilities and agree to the testing.
That’s all well and good for Indian men, but what about us North American men who enjoy sex but are tired of buying our birth control in truckstop bathrooms? In 2010 a not for profit organization in San Francisco called the Parsemus Foundation bought the rights to the RISUG procedure and renamed it Vasalgel for North American markets. In the years since they have produced the polymer gel in a certified pharmaceutical plant in the US and are successfully five and a half months into a six month test on rabbits who so far show zero sperm count. They also claim the procedure works like a mesh structure that holds back sperm, rather than killing it outright as was originally thought. They’re eager and optimistic about having the procedure available on the American market by 2015.
I spoke with Dr Ronald Weiss, a consultant to the Parsemus Foundation who tried to bring the RISUG procedure to Canada back in the 90s, before it was rebranded as Vasalgel. He told me that despite the idealistic goal that the Parsemus Foundation has set of getting the procedure to the public by 2015 they would still have to prove that the procedure is easily and safely reversible in human subjects. This could be a major hurdle as the reversal procedure has been tested and proved effective in animals but has yet to be tested on humans. That’s if they can get the polymer approved for use by the FDA. And even if everything went smoothly the approval process in Canada is much more difficult than it is in the US. He hesitated to say that it could take anywhere from ten to twenty years for the procedure to be approved by Canadian standards, if at all. The “best mousetrap” we have, he told me, could remain the vasectomy.
Thinking about my sperm as hordes of mice waiting to tumble out of my junk weirded me out so much that I called Elaine Lissner, the president of the Parnassus Foundation. She said that assessment is only partially accurate. It might be a scramble to get Vasalgel on the American market by the end of 2015 but they’ll be pushing it as a medical device instead of a drug and also an alternative to the vasectomy until reversibility is proven effective. “If it’s just a less surgical vasectomy it’s not that exciting,” she told me. “It’s what makes it contraception rather than a sterilant. But if you wait for everything that you want it could take forever.” She said as soon as it’s on the American market reversibility will be proven in time and Canadians could use their data to push it through the approval process or travel to the US in the meantime to have it done.
There’s so much bureaucratic red tape holding back the Vasalgel procedure that it seems you might be better off holding your breath or politely asking if it’s okay to come on its back. But Elaine also assured me that “healthy people are going to be using this potentially for decades and potentially for the rest of their lives so it needs to be really safe and really well understood.” I also asked her about some speculation that major drug companies will work hard to keep Vasalgel off the market because there is no profit in a one-time injection that costs less than the needle used to inject it. She said they won’t sell out to big pharma because, “it would be all too easy for it just to get put on a shelf and never be seen again. That has happened before. Beyond that I can only speculate.” Then she laughed nervously.
It’s still too early to say whether or not Vasalgel is the miracle birth control it claims to be, and it could take a lot of time before it’s available. There’s also talk of the development of a male birth control pill, but is that a responsibility we want to take on? The endless forms of birth control for women still present significant and complicated problems but men’s birth control options are only slightly more scientifically advanced than using a poncho in a rainstorm. Of course Vasalgel is just one option, but the prospect of a no-complications male-centric form of birth control is something to hope for; if only because it would lessen the burden of freaky side effects from female birth control pills, patches and implants.
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