THE elusive “male contraceptive pill”. How many times have we heard that it’s coming, that a second sexual revolution is on the cards? Every couple of years, for most of my adult life, I’ve heard this story. There is a headline declaring a promising breakthrough in reproductive technology — advances that could alleviate women of the heavy burden of contraceptive responsibility.

This time, the promise comes in the form of a sizeable cash injection to the tune of £720,000, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has increasingly shifted focus to family planning in recent years, hoping to assist women in developing countries control their fertility with confidence and ease.

The money donated to Dundee University will allow researchers to test existing drugs and compounds for their sperm-disrupting potential. Basically, anything that hobbles the little swimmers’ athleticism or that impedes their ability to get into an egg. Such medicines already exist, but this grant will allow the university to screen large libraries of potential drugs for promising candidates.

For any woman who’s had the misfortune of taking hormonal birth control, she knows the health cost of that intervention intimately. Despite the sexual liberation offered by that little pill, implant or injection, women have paid a heavy price for their freedom. Depression, anxiety, inability to think. Weight-gain, thyroid problems, hair loss and nausea. Migraine, libido-loss and acne. They are all common side effects. Then there are the glossed-over life-threatening complications like massive potassium dumps in the blood, deep-vein thrombosis, heart attack, stroke and an increased risk of certain types of cancer. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Each new report of progress in male contraceptive technology offers a little glimmer of possibility, a lambent flicker of hope that there may be some miracle substance out there that can redress the balance of contraceptive burden. For heterosexual women, it seems too good to be true to consider a future where that responsibility could be handed over to our partners. There will be no premature hallelujahs from this sceptic. It’s going to take far more than a medical breakthrough to level the playing field. There is far more to undo

than the problem of contraception choice alone.

In 1960, the FDA approved the pill for use. That’s 60 years worth of cultural norms that put the expectation on women to take medication. That’s a lot to unravel. Then there’s a lengthy history of gender bias in the medical industry to confront.

You only have to look at the recent medical trial for a male contraceptive. The drug produced side effects including ache at the injection site, low mood, muscle aches, acne and increased libido. Twenty men out of the 320 participants said the side effects were intolerable, resulting in the trial being scrapped – despite results showing the injection to be 96% effective. To put that percentage into perspective, that’s around 10% more effective than condoms which are prone to human error.

The impact on men’s health was deemed to outweigh the benefit of contraception. I refer you once

more to the grim list in the paragraph above. None of those symptoms is off the menu for women. In comparison, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal for managing unwanted pregnancy.

Despite hormonal contraception actually killing women, these risky interventions are still handed out, even to young teenage girls, without a second thought. It speaks volumes that we’ve had to endure this level of risk, and that in 60 years there has been little progress towards mitigating the impact of reproductive control on women’s long-term

health. Society has judged this is a fair price for women. Why would men wish to subject themselves to even a fraction of that discomfort when women have so readily absorbed it for so long? Their complaints, concerns and health outcomes have not been enough to gee up progress for a healthier alternative. Woman have had to suck it up.

The burden of pregnancy has always fallen to women. The plain biological fact that every sexual encounter presents more risk to a woman’s health and freedom than a man’s. When we have sex, we risk our freedom, our financial independence, our careers, our opportunities and our health. Because of this, there is more incentive for us to take what’s available to us – despite the cost. Men know this, pharmaceutical companies know this.

When women will always have more pressing need to control their fertility no matter what, there is little real incentive to drive medical progress. More importantly, the cultural shift away from that expectation needed to make male contraception not just a possibility but a desirable choice for men is miles away. Until men demand the choice to take on that responsibility instead of us, progress will stall and sputter out.

Is the male contraceptive pill coming to a pharmacy near you? Don’t count on it.