The male birth control pill. We hear about it all the time, but it never seems any closer to becoming a reality. A recent Google News search cropped up almost a million results. Headlines like A Male Birth Control Option Promises to Be Available Within 5 Years, Male contraceptive pill ‘a step closer’ to hitting market and Birth Control for Men-It’s Loooooong Overdue flood the page.
I get it, the logic behind a male birth control pill makes sense. The contraceptive burden shouldn’t fall entirely on women, men should have a more substantial stake in family planning, the more available and accessible options, the better. Makes sense.
In a perfect world, where gender-parity means more than Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet — a largely symbolic move that attracted more applause than it did actually address gender inequity in Parliament — male contraception might even translate into fewer unplanned pregnancies, safer sex, you name it.
But the problem with the conversation around contraception for men is mostly frustrating: it ignores the power imbalances and patriarchal structures that make legislation and policy around women’s health so important in the first place.
Something like 99 per cent of women in the United States have used birth control methods at least once in their lives. And guess what, Canada doesn’t even record statistics on women’s contraception usage. As recently as 2013, Canadian researchers had to use American statistics to estimate trends in contraception.
Don’t let our lack of statistical analysis fool you, Canadian women are certainly still accessing contraception. Last year alone, the sexual health clinic at the Middlesex-London Health Unit provided nearly 28 000 low-cost contraceptives, including upwards of 500 doses of emergency contraception. But despite widespread usage, provincial health plans still do not fully cover birth control, because Canada remains the only country in the world with healthcare that does not cover pharmaceuticals. Most women access birth control through supplemental health insurance, provided by employers.
A recent Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) study found that most Canadian employers do not routinely cover the cost of contraception. Insurance coverage varies widely, and while some plans are comprehensive, there is no national standard for contraception coverage.
The Public Service Health Care Plan provides coverage for federal employees through Sun Life, but only covers oral contraceptives. The same plan provides up to $500 in reimbursement for erectile dysfunction drugs. Several plans omit birth control coverage altogether, including the supplemental insurance for employees of Save on Foods. For women without supplemental health coverage, especially women with precarious immigration status, the cost of unsubsidized birth control can be preventative.
The male birth control pill won’t do much to change that.
Why? Aside from the obvious legislative and policy implications, the real reason is that financial obstacles don’t just exist on the demand side of the equation. Birth control methods are expensive to research, develop, and test through clinical trials. And Big Pharma, an industry that spends over $635 million lobbying the United States Congress (which exceeds the amount spent by Wall Street and the oil and gas industry combined), hasn’t developed a new contraceptive method for women in decades.
Most of the new birth control methods available, like the IUD, were developed outside of the commercial sector and eventually bought by Big Pharma companies, who spent their money on marketing. In other words, the companies with the resources and finances to invest significant sums in women’s health prefer to sit back and wait until something pops up on the market that they can buy to expand their portfolios.
This is all to say that when healthcare in Canada finally provides some sort of comprehensive pharmacare plan, when Big Pharma starts spending more on developing better, more effective, and safer birth control options for women, when the Federal government starts to fully cover birth control, when all hospitals and schools are required to provide women and girls with access to birth control, then maybe we can start worrying about a male option.
Until then, the male birth control pill seems like just another way to put on our blinders, shirk our responsibility to ensure women have access to contraception, and, like always, turn our attention towards men.
* Featured image: YouTube