As we shared in a previous post, gathering and sharing people’s perspectives and opinions about male contraception is a key advocacy effort of MCI’s. Though we often try to gather these perspectives from the public, we also wanted to share some of the perspectives MCI staff has on male contraception. In this post, we share our conversation with Executive Director Heather Vahdat as she talks about her motivations for working at Male Contraceptive Initiative as well as her thoughts about male contraception.
What do you think about male contraception?
It’s cliche, but I can’t help but immediately come up with “its about time!” I actually think A LOT about male contraception but I guess the basics are: it’s needed, it’s good, and it’s time.
What motivated you to work at MCI, and what do you hope to accomplish?
The past decade of my life motivated me to work at MCI, but my initial “ah-ha!” moment around male contraception came from none other than Dr. David Sokal, co-founder and current board chair for MCI. We worked together on a female contraceptive project at another organization, which was my first project after finishing my MPH. David has always been an advocate for male contraception, always trying to find a way to generate support for development. When he first mentioned it, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It had never crossed my mind before, other than the usual awareness of condoms and vasectomy. From that point on it was always on my mind and came up in just about every project I’ve worked on since that time—maybe because of my heightened awareness, but I believe it is because societal norms are shifting.
One of the last projects I worked on just before joining MCI was the most compelling indicator of the need for a broader acknowledgment of the need for male methods. While the project was focused on female contraceptives, during this project, I heard women and men in Kenya and India ask the question, unprompted and in their own words: “what about methods for men?” That experience coupled with the fact that I have a young son motivated me to strive for more contraceptive options that are male controlled.
I am of the strong opinion that the field of male contraception has a tremendous opportunity. We are definitely starting off behind the eight ball with decades of false starts, but this also affords us tremendous opportunity. Since we are charting our own course, we have an obligation to try to do things better. We want to help develop amazing products for men and their partners, but we also want to start out with a goal of establishing a path to market that results in fair pricing for everyone and a better understanding of the impact that an expanded method mix can have. That’s what we’re really talking about here: expanding the overall contraceptive method mix, and making more options available for everyone.
We cannot forget that providing more male methods absolutely will impact unintended/mistimed pregnancy rates. That means that all of the same health and societal outcomes that we have always attributed to increased uptake of female methods will only further benefit from allowing greater opportunities for shared and combined contraceptive strategies. We really have only been realizing 50% of our opportunity by focusing only on female methods.
What are some things that you wish everyone knew about male contraception?
The one outstanding question I had when joining MCI was why there wasn’t a greater focus on non-hormonal methods for women, when MCI’s sole focus is solely on non-hormonal. One of our previous board members and a well-respected member of the Reproductive Biology community, Dr. Debbie O’Brien, immediately cleared this up for me by explaining some basic biology. Generally, when you think of any “cell” you immediately think of a round object, and that applies to the vast majority of cells in the body. However, when you think of a sperm cell, it is a very different looking cell—it has some very specific characteristics that are unique to sperm cells. That means that it has unique characteristics and functions that can be targeted for modification without impacting characteristics and functions that might be shared with other cell types or common enough to result in off-target effects.
I also wish that everyone could see the mental image that I have when I think about the potential impact of increasing the contraceptive method mix to include male methods. I often struggle to communicate the vast reach that I see, but it really is best summed up as a domino effect. When I think of just one unintended or mistimed pregnancy that is prevented due to the availability of a method that addresses a currently unmet need, I think of the downstream effects. I see a relationship that isn’t negatively impacted, a woman who is able to continue her education or her career as she desires. I also see a healthy woman who has not endured the risk of an unexpected complication from an unintended or mistimed pregnancy, a couple who has the opportunity to plan for a healthy pregnancy, or a couple that can achieve their desire to not have children. I see a reduced demand on food and water supplies, and an opportunity for greater economic outcomes at the individual, family, and society level due to reduced health care costs associated with an unintended or mistimed pregnancy as well as the economic impact on a family or individual who was not economically prepared for a pregnancy.
I wish that everyone could acknowledge the impact that increasing female contraceptive options has had on a global level and then recognize that those gains were, essentially, made with only 50% of our global population participating. Imagine what could be achieved if we were operating at our full potential!
What impact do you think new male methods of contraception will have on the world?
I think this is really captured above: a simple answer is to see the impact that female contraception has had, and imagine that impact nearly doubled.
There is no greater way to impact our environment by addressing a preventable challenge. It is really such a simple equation. Our global population is growing with current projections for 2020 showing an increase of about 80 million. Consider that number compared to the estimated number of unintended pregnancies worldwide, most recently reported for 2010-2014 to be 62 per 1000 women. Assuming even a conservative average population of women aged 15-39-–1.4 billion according to World Bank data, that would account for nearly 84 million unintended pregnancies. Imagine if the majority of those unintended pregnancies were prevented. Population growth could potentially be reflected as no net change, or even show a decrease. This immediately leads to a similar domino effect that I described above:moving towards a sustainable planet and society.
We will continue sharing more perspectives from our team, our grantees, and members of the general public moving forward. Want to lend your voice to the conversation? Reach out to us and share your thoughts today!