Spurious reports on contraception pervade social media

Several days ago, you may have seen a handful of news articles float around on the internet that made a lot of people, especially women, an­gry and upset.

According to these articles, scientists were making progress in creating a male contracep­tive that was 96 percent effective in preventing pregnancy in female partners. This was won­derful news for many women who have long carried the burden of birth control and its side effects–some extraordinarily harmful.

A male contraceptive would finally shift some of that responsibility onto men. However, the study came to halt after, according to one news article, “Men taking it reported negative side effects including mood swings, an altered libido and acne” (USA Today, “Male birth con­trol study nixed after men can’t handle side ef­fects women face daily,” 11.02.2016).

Naturally, the sheer hypocrisy of the situa­tion outraged many women who had to suffer those symptoms every day. Their outrage, from headlines and social media posts alone, was completely justified. Countless Facebook and Twitter posts denounced the blatant double standard in halting the study for safety concerns when women were expected to endure the same side effects without complaining. As the news spread, the onslaught of criticism grew, and rightfully so. This news serves as another reminder of how women face unfair treatment and societal pressures that men don’t have to think about. However, the media coverage on this study has been disturbingly misleading. Although the people’s outrage against the men in the study is very understandable, the media is still undeniably guilty for leaving out several significant details and grossly oversimplifying the results in exchange for brief sensationalism.

The male contraceptive in question is an in­jected hormonal drug that reversibly suppresses the sperm count in men (The Journal of Clini­cal Endocrinology & Metabolism [JCEM], “Ef­ficacy and Safety of an Injectable Combination Hormonal Contraceptive for Men,” 10.27.2016). In order to test the drug’s effectiveness, the re­searchers enlisted a total of 320 healthy male volunteers and repeatedly administered the drug into the person’s arm for an entire year. Just like those articles on Facebook claim, the male participants did experience mood swings, muscle pain and acne as part of the side effects of the drug throughout the experiment (JCEM).

However, what popular media coverage failed to report on was the sheer scope of these side effects. Over the course of the trial, the 320 male participants reported a total 1,491 adverse events and researchers determined that 900 of those events were caused by the hormonal drug (JCEM).

“These side effect rate is pretty high with this new study of men when compared with contra­ception studies for women … For example and perspective, a study comparing the birth con­trol patch with the pill found a serious adverse event rate of 2%. The pill reduces acne for 70% of women and in studies with the Mirena IUD the rate of acne is 6.8%,” explained obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter (Vox, “We still don’t have male birth control — but no, it’s not because men are wimps,” 11.02.2016). In the male contraceptive study, more than 45 percent of the men got acne as a verifiable result of the drug (JCEM).

In addition, a total of eight men out of the 320 participants were not back to “normal sperm counts” a year after they stopped receiving the drug. One male volunteer was rendered infertile due to the treatment, because his sperm count failed to return to normal even after four years had passed since his last injection.

Now here’s what the majority of the news outlets didn’t mention in their report: the study wasn’t halted because the male participants couldn’t handle the side effects. In reality, an in­dependent, third-party peer-review committee found that it didn’t make sense to continue the study, because “the risks the study participants outweighed the potential benefits to the study participants” (JCEM). The actual male partic­ipants involved in the study had no power or authority to shut down the entire experiment.

Not only that, only 20 of the 320 men discon­tinued the study, one of whom had to stop due to a dangerous increase in blood pressure (JCEM).

Despite the various adverse events and the clinically intensive regimen of the study, more than 75 percent of the participants stated that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the outcome of the experiment.

About 24 percent felt neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and only 1.3 percent of the men in the study answered that they were unsatisfied (JCEM). Similarly, the survey showed that over 80 percent of the men answered that they would continue to use a similar male contraceptive and only 1.3 percent of the participants said no. The researchers themselves concluded that “male participants and their partners found this [birth control method] to be highly acceptable at the end of the trial, even after being made aware of the early termination of the study intervention” (JCEM).

Despite this information, news outlets every­where failed to cover the entire study truthfully and instead chose to run incendiary headlines that made the male volunteers appear spineless and pathetic: “Men Abandon Groundbreak­ing Study on Male Birth Control, Citing ‘Mood Changes’” (Broadly, 10.29.2016), “Male contra­ceptive pill works—but side effects halt trial” (New Scientist, 10.27.2016), “Male Contraceptive Injection Halted For Same Side Effects Women Have Suffered For Years” (Elle, 10.28.2016), “Yes, contraceptives have side effects—and it’s time for men to put up with them too” (Independent, 10.28.2016), “Men Quit Male Birth Control Study Because It Was Giving Them Mood Swings. Welcome to the club, dudes. Also: WOMAN UP” (Cosmopolitan, 10.30.2016).

Personally, I don’t blame the Internet for be­ing misled. The fault lies on the news outlets for either not paying attention to what they were reporting on or purposefully twisting the facts in the study to create a sensationalist headline. It goes to show how important it is for newspa­pers and magazines to write a headline and an article that accurately represents the content of the original source.

On the bright side, a lot of the resulting com­plaints are right. Scientists should put more effort into reducing the side effects of female birth control. As I mentioned earlier, women are unfairly burdened with the pain and suffer­ing that accompanies birth control. In addition, the possible side effects of the female birth con­trol definitely shouldn’t be brushed aside and ignored. Research indicates that birth control pills increase the risk of blood clots by about three or four times. That is terrifying. I am cer­tain that the public wouldn’t care as much if the participants in the male contraceptive research study were women instead of men. While I do not condone the blatant inaccuracy and mis­leading nature of the articles covering the male contraceptive study, I do think that this sort of public outrage might be a good way to finally start the conversation of fixing a broken system.

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