1960 characterized a turning point in the lives of women (and men!) around the Globe: for the first time, the birth control pill had been approved! This occurred in the United States and after only two years the efforts of researchers seemed to have paid off, as 1,2 million of American women were on the pill. For a while, women regarded the tiny colourful pill as a victory in a World dominated by men, as it ended an era of endless baby making and marrying the wrong guy too early. Unfortunately, the small drug did not come without costs: besides the religious, cultural and political controversies it generated, women started to feel the side effects in their bodies, which ranged from the soft and frequent mood changes, weight gain and acne to the severe but rare blood clots, heart attacks and strokes. The question that came to the mind of many was then: what about a male birth control pill? Despite the popularity of the idea, a simple analysis of demand and supply for the product shows its lack of viability.
Let me start with the demand side. Why on earth would men demand a birth control pill? Rationally, it would only compensate if the expected benefits exceeded the expected costs. However, there are practically no benefits! Indeed, pregnancy imposes a higher cost on women than men, so the expected benefit from avoiding one is small for men. As for the expected costs, take into account worse or as negative side effects as women pills and the price men would have to pay for the drug. The obvious conclusion is that men are very unlikely to try this drug, which is confirmed by the scarce empirical evidence. Indeed, a study by Kaiser Family Foundation for the USA found that even if the male birth control pill was provided freely, 29% of men would never use it. Women were even more sceptical regarding male use of the drug: 45% did not believe their partners would try it.
From a supply point of view, incentives are also weak: so far, the development of male birth control pills has shown to have more costs than expected return. R&D projects have started in the 70’s at Oregon, USA and then focused on the use of hormones to control sperm production. However, they were abandoned in phase I due to the adverse effects in men’s eyes. In the 90’s, a revival of the study of the male birth control pill has occurred: despite the different products tested, which ranged from papaya seeds to drugs such as Adjudin, Gamendazol or Trestolone, all failed during animal testing or phase I, after huge investments of time and resources. And in 2007, studies slowed down. Pharmaceuticals finally understood by past experience that the product would probably sell at a price that would not compensate the costs, if it sold at all. Indeed, besides the studies pointing out that demand is weak, entering with a new pill in the market could lead to a decrease in the whole price of pills (including women’s pills markets), due to increased competition. So, it was mainly universities and non profit organizations which continued research in the field.
More recently, scientists have isolated JQ1, a molecule which blocks a protein essential to produce sperm in mice and that has shown minimal adverse effects on animals. As such, a revival of enthusiasm on the male birth control pill has aroused, contaminating even prominent magazines such as the Economist. But in my opinion, it is again a false promise, as the product is not viable from an economic perspective. The new pill (if it exists!) will be tested for efficacy over “several years” and due to the high costs of R&D, will be abandoned afterwards after the finding of some side effect on men. And the story will go on, over and over again. At last, until the day when a really high skilled economist kills the dream once and for all.