Should men take the contraceptive pill?
FIONNUALA McHUGH and DAVID IBISON
YES It was a few years ago that I realised the full implications of relying upon my girlfriend to take the Pill. We had done the normal thing of discussing it like mature adults and had reached a decision mutually agreeable to both of us. She said: 'Why should I take risks with my health for your sexual gratification?' I replied: 'Because if you don't, you're sacked.' It was a healthy relationship based on sharing. I was upset when she left me for another woman.
Anyway, that's by the by. We had been out drinking and had reached a stage of inebriation where we almost found each other attractive. We decided to return home and - to put it romantically - copulate. The mating process began, but was unfortunately interrupted by my girlfriend's desire to vomit. At first I was sympathetic - pointing the way to the toilet and lighting a cigarette to pass the time. But then the enormity of the pending disaster hit: the re-emergence of her stomach contents included that small disc of sexual safety known as the Pill.
If she vomited, it meant no sex. Moreover, it meant no sex for the rest of the month. I leapt from the bed yelling, 'Don't chuck!' But it was too late. With a hurl and a flush all hope of gratification for the night was confined to the U-bend. That evening I had my first discussion about a male pill and decided, once and for all, that if such a things were invented, I'd scoff them down like Smarties.
And now the dream has become a reality. The intervening years between the unfortunate Night of the Re-emerging Pill and today have given me a new perspective on the subject of the Pill. For example, in a bored moment I read the leaflet that comes with them. It read like medical dictionary dedicated to Extremely Serious Diseases. I never realised what you could get from the things. My first thought was: 'There is no way I'm swallowing that.' It only took me a couple of months to reach the conclusion that expecting my girlfriend to do so was less than fair - not that it stopped me, of course. It never does, does it? But now I have a choice, and that's what it's all about, isn't it? Choice. I can now have an injection that assassinates 93 million sperm a day and also removes the risk that my girlfriend gets ovarian cancer. Obviously, it's a toss up. Her early death versus absolutely no repercussions at all for me. I asked myself this question: can I be bothered to turn up at the doctor's surgery every four months to get an injection just to save my girlfriend from premature and painful death? Tough choice, but in the final analysis, I decided that just this once, I could. Relationships are all about give and take, aren't they? My own generosity amazes me.
NO Before tackling this topic, I thought I'd better canvas some opinions from the truly interested party in this matter: women. Their shared reaction was best summed up by one female's comment which went straight to the heart of the problem. 'Look,' she said, with some exasperation. 'If they can't even remember to put down the loo seat in the bathroom, how on earth are they going to remember to take the Pill every day?' Exactly. Although women might dream of shared responsibility in a relationship, you don't often see men with a calendar in their hands, a pucker of calculation on their brow and a dawning realisation in their eyes. Arnold Schwarzenegger did it on celluloid but until men give birth, the head naturalist in the birds and bees department should remain female.
Medical researchers, however, persist in believing that women would like to pass control of their bodies over to men. (What, even more control? I hear the cynics among you groan.) So they potter about in their laboratories and conduct tests with injections and patches - like Dr Fred Wu, scion of a Hong Kong family, who has been involved in a World Health Organisation project on male contraception and who last week announced the efficacy of a weekly jab of testosterone. He admitted that there were some baffling inconsistencies. Tests had revealed, for instance, that the contraceptive was 95 per cent effective in Chinese men but only 70 per cent effective in European men. 'It could be diet,' mused Wu.
Hmmm. Back to the drawing-board on that one, I think. And, of course, there are side-effects: weight gain, acne, mood swings, a litany of chemically induced problems with which millions of women are familiar. As it is a truism that when women get colds men get 'flu, such sufferings are unlikely to be endured in martyred silence. One of the reasons drugs companies aren't wildly enthusiastic about male contraception is the threat of litigation, male suits being deemed far more serious than female. And it was ever thus.
The serve-'em-right school of feminism might see such side-effects as a fine argument for encouraging male contraception, but I take a kinder line. Being a squeamish individual who's read many gruesome articles on this subject, I'd never take the Pill myself and I don't really see why my loved one should feel obliged to either. And I do wonder, should it ever become widely available, how couples will decide who picks up the tablet - your thrombosis, darling, or mine? In any case, it looks as if the whole issue of contraception is about to become redundant. As you will doubtless have read, male fertility is dropping at an alarming rate in those countries where women have been on the Pill for decades. Oestrogens in the water supply mean that, whether they like it or not, men have also been on the Pill for years. It's just been the wrong one. Ironic, isn't it?