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Technology & Innovation

Why a Male Birth Control Pill Has Taken So Long

Fifty years after the female birth control pill hit the market, male birth control is finally becoming a reality. While I will admit that it must be harder to control a billion sperm than it is to control a single egg, the real reason this technology has taken so long to arrive can be described by two words – supply and demand.

Male Birth Control (MBC) Demand:

From an economics perspective, in order for a man to be willing to use MBC, the benefits of the pill must exceed the costs. Compared to women, the cost of an unplanned pregnancy for a man is much lower. Biological costs aside, mis-timed pregnancies for women often lead to underinvestment in education and, even for those who have completed their schooling, wage penalties that can seriously affect their lifetime earning potential. While it is true that some men may have similar experiences, the biological reality is that a career disruption for a man who unexpectedly becomes a father is much smaller than it is for a woman.

Because the costs of an accidental pregnancy are so high for women, they are prepared to pay a fairly high price for drugs that help them avoid that issue. The demand curve for MBC is below the female demand curve for exactly that reason – for any level of supply, men are not prepared to pay as much as women are for birth control.

Over time, though, two things have happened that have probably increased the demand for MBC (i.e. shifted the demand curve up closer to the female demand curve).

The first is that men who would rather opt out of the family plan all together, despite having impregnated their partners, are having a harder time doing so without paying child support. As governments become better at collecting child support from fathers, and as support levels increase, there is a greater financial penalty for men who don’t protect themselves against accidental pregnancy. So the demand curve for MBC, especially with single men, should have shifted up as a result of this change in policy – those men are willing to pay more than they were in the past.

The second factor that has changed demand over time is that as the wage gap between men and women has fallen, families are choosing to have fewer children in order to allow women to spend more time in the workforce; household demand for birth control has increased significantly. If a higher contribution to household income leads to more bargaining power for women, then women are in a better position to negotiate not having to take contraceptives themselves, especially if they feel that the side effects of the pill (such as reduced libido and weight gain) are greater for them then their partner.

The actual evidence on whether or not men are willing to pay for MBC is, as far as I can tell, non-existent. Some studies have looked at men’s willingness to use chemical contraceptives but there is a big difference between asking men to respond to the question “Would you use MBC if it were available?” and asking them “Would you be willing to pay $400 every three months to have drugs injected into your balls?” I think you will agree, there is a subtle difference.

Male Birth Control (MBC) Supply:

Arguments about whether or not men are willing to pay for these drugs (and suffer the inconvenience) aside, it has probably taken up until this point for there to be sufficient demand for MBC for suppliers to even consider developing the technology.

The best evidence I can find that demand for MBC exists is simply the fact that drug companies are now investing millions of dollars trying to turn these drugs into a reality. Presumably they have collected the data that shows that market demand exists at a price that warrants the massive expenditure involved in the development of a new drug. Of course, they also risk undercutting their female birth control market, so don’t expect that price to be any lower than the current price of the pill.

The one big question mark over this whole issue of supply is whether or not there is a market for a MBC in China. If drug companies can sell MBC in that market then they are gold. In fact, I might just start buying stocks. The problem is that only 1.7% of married women in China use the pill as a birth control method with many believing that in the long-run it will lead to infertility. If drug companies cannot convince women to use the birth control pill in China, I am not sure how they can convince men to take these drugs on any large scale.

When my children were born I had hoped that there would be an AIDs vaccine by the time they were old enough to be sexually active. That has not happened, but MBC seems to be right on track for when my son becomes a man. I can’t even convince him to wear pants in the winter so there is little hope that he will agree to having his testicles heated with an ultra-sound every six months (I did ask and he responded “What?! No! That’s just weird.”) An easy method though, say, an annual implant, would be great for the teen market. I wonder what will happen to a girl’s ability to negotiate condom use once a boy doesn’t have to worry about getting her knocked up. Maybe these same drug companies are also developing a cure for STI’s. I certainly hope so.


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