Discussions about mitigating climate change usually involve strategies like cutting back on fossil fuel use or reducing reliance on plastic. But a more controversial and less discussed approach is population control. To that end, one researcher is calling for new and better contraceptives.
In a perspective piece published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, reproductive health researcher Deborah Anderson argues that it’s time for a new “contraception revolution.”
The first revolution in the past century brought the birth control we have today. But the global population has boomed exponentially in the last 200 years — from less than a billion in 1800 to more than 7.7 billion at last count. “As the global population continues to grow, pressures [on the environment] will increase and become more critical,” Anderson wrote. Some scientists have estimated that having one fewer child can lead to roughly 30 times a reduction in carbon emissions than living car-free.
Some groups, including Anderson’s at Boston University, are already working on alternative birth control methods, such as vaginal gels and films. Some of these also protect against sexually transmitted diseases, which could raise the appeal of using contraceptives. Anderson said that preventing unplanned pregnancies could also help stabilize the health and well-being of many women and families.
STAT spoke with Anderson to learn more. This interview has been condensed and edited lightly.
Why did you feel the need to raise this issue?
I, like other scientists, am really worried about what we’re doing to our planet. The human population is really putting pressure on the viability of our planet. About half of all pregnancies are unplanned, which is just a staggering number to me. There are a lot of ways to approach this, but what I thought I could do is raise the call that we need more contraceptives out there so that women — and men — have more choices and contraception has more impact so we can bring the population down.
Are you suggesting that people not have kids?
That’s certainly a choice. I’m a mom, so I’m in favor of having small families. I don’t think people should necessarily have to make a choice not to have a family. If we could keep the family size to two children, we would have a big impact. And we should give women the tools to do so, if they should so decide.
What’s wrong with the current contraceptive landscape?
The products now are sterilization, which doesn’t work for younger women who might want to have children in the future. There are hormonal methods, which work well in some populations but are very unpopular in other areas. Then there are the barrier methods, like condoms, and they work really well if they’re used exactly, but there’s a really high failure rate because people don’t use them consistently. [Most] of the methods are medical methods and require a prescription.
What would be a better contraceptive?
We need more user-friendly, non-prescription methods for women. And the other big — huge — gap is male contraception. I really think that we’d have a home run if we could develop a male contraceptive that was acceptable. I think men would love to step up and shoulder part of the responsibility, if we marketed it well and there were no side effects. I don’t think we should rely on women to shoulder this huge responsibility.
We are developing a product that we hope to take into Phase 1 clinicals. It’s an antibody-based method that would be topical. The antibody would inhibit sperm in the vagina before it got to the egg, and we’re seeing it can do that in 30 seconds.
Why is this an area that has fallen behind when it comes to research?
Around the year 1990, [funding agencies] took the pedal off the gas. They decided they didn’t need to fund contraception research anymore. I’m sure it’s multifaceted, including political reasons, but a big reason was that they didn’t think the population’s exponential growth was as big a problem as some people feared. We didn’t really know about climate change and the effect it would have on the planet. A lot of these things have just come to focus.
How can progress be made?
I think we need global leadership that covers the three areas: contraception, education, and services. I think it could be put forward as a package that we need this because having half of all pregnancies unintended is simply not acceptable. That’s what I’m hoping for. Maybe the WHO or other global leaders will take this up and start to push it a little bit more. And push more money into the area — that always produces results, or that’s the hope. Local leaders and national agencies need to take it up, too.