Until very recently, birth control has been mainly been a woman’s prerogative and responsibility. This was in no small part due to the work of Margaret Sanger and her colleagues, who dedicated their live to making birth control available to women. While many couples approach family planning together, methods such as the pill, the IUD, or the diaphragm don’t require male participation to be effective. Condoms are a example of a popular birth control method that men are responsible for; another is the “pulling-out” method. Vasectomies have been popular since the 1970s as a permanent birth control method for men, especially among men who have already reached their desired number of children.
Groundbreaking research coming from India suggests that a new form of male birth control is on the horizon. Called the RISUG (which is an acronym for “Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance”) this method blocks the vas deferens by injecting a small tube that also serves as a spermicide. It is similar to a vasectomy in many ways, but is fully reversible.
This is a huge step in reproductive health, because if the RISUG is safe and effective, it will allow men and women to more fully share the responsibilities of family planning. Yet women have fought hard to gain control their fertility, and it is important to keep in mind that a male-based birth control method many undo some of the gains women like Margaret Sanger have made. An effective, long-term and reversible male contraception may point the way towards more progressive relationships where both men and women share the obligations and responsibilities of birth control. Yet women must remain vigilant to ensure that this new technology does not get used against them, which in the current political climate is an increasing threat. Insurance coverage will clearly have a large influence in how this new contraception influences the choices that couples make.
Margaret Sanger was thinking through these concerns nearly a hundred years ago, in her book “Women and the New Race”. But in 1920, the stakes were much greater, because birth control was completely illegal in the United States. She acknowledged that, “It is persistently urged however, that since sex expression is the act of two, the responsibility of controlling the results should not be placed on women alone” but argued that given the contemporary social climate, this would not be possible, and insisted that women take full control over their bodies:
In an ideal society, no doubt, birth control would become the concern of the man as well as the woman. The hard, inescapable fact which encounter today is that man has not only refused any such responsibility, but has individually and collectively sought to prevent women from obtaining knowledge by which she could assume this responsibility. She is still in the position of a dependent today because her mate has refused to consider her as an individual apart from his needs. (Sanger, Woman and the New Race, 96.)
What do you think? Clearly our society and the technology we use have come a long way since Margaret wrote these words. Are we completely beyond these concerns? Or should we still be heeding her warnings?