Now Streaming Live: Promoting Family Planning Through Onstage Vasectomies

Experts are raising awareness for one of the world’s most effective and underutilized forms of birth control.
(Photo: Facebook)
Dec 19, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Abigail Higgins is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Boston Globe, and The Times of London on women's rights, global health, and development.

Only eight people were ahead of Eric in line as he waited to enter stage left at the Kenya National Theater.

“Is it bad?” he asked nervously. “Should I be worried?”

Despite being backstage, Eric isn’t an actor. Instead, he was one of thousands of men around the world getting a free vasectomy as part of the fourth annual World Vasectomy Day.

From Indonesia to Ethiopia, almost 1,000 doctors in more than 40 countries performed vasectomies at no cost to the patients.

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But nothing was quite like in Kenya, where they were performed onstage and live-streamed to raise awareness for one of the world’s most effective and underutilized forms of birth control.

“Number 16?” one of the attendants called. Eric nervously looked at the slip of paper in his hand that read “24,” just eight spots away.

After their third child was born three years ago, Eric and his wife didn’t want any more kids, but it has taken Eric a long time to gather his courage.

“Losing my abilities to have children isn’t easy, especially for an African. For a man, it seems as long as you’re able to have kids, you have strength,” he said.

Vasectomies don’t have the negative side effects of hormonal birth control and are much less invasive and expensive than the female equivalent, tubal ligation. The entire procedure takes about 10 minutes and has minimal side effects—if any at all.

But fears, misconceptions, and sexism mean that vasectomies are still quite rare. Only 2 percent of men around the world have them, compared with almost 20 percent of women who have undergone tubal ligation. Marie Stopes International, a global reproductive rights organization, has performed thousands of tubal ligations in Kenya this year and only 320 vasectomies, according to Faustina Fynn-Nyame, the Kenya country director.

“It’s now that we are trying to reach out and say to the men, ‘You can get involved in this as well, it’s your life, your decision, your family, your community,’ ” she said.

As Fynn-Nyame spoke, doctors continued performing vasectomies behind opaque plastic panels backlit so the audience could watch their busy shadows. They shared the stage with panelists, whom the audience peppered with questions, and a CNBC Africa anchor emcee who was ribbed for not getting behind the panels himself.

Doctors Skyped in from Ethiopia and India, and one doctor, who called in from Australia, sported a “Dr. Snip” T-shirt and proudly announced he had performed 23 vasectomies that day.

Live-streaming may seem extreme, but a similar event a few years ago is what first got Eric thinking about vasectomies.

“I think the publicity is actually very good,” he said. “Many others will get to know that there is an option and it is safe, and it’s not harmful to performance or anything.”

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Eric and his wife first discussed a vasectomy when she started struggling with the negative side effects of hormonal birth control: nausea, headaches, weight gain, and decreased sex drive.

“I also know it’s not easy for the ladies, because many times they have to be the ones who have to use the contraceptives,” said Eric. “I think it’s time for more of us men to take up, you know, and help them. Because it’s some of these contraceptives that are not very good for the ladies.”

Still, many men consider a vasectomy is tantamount to castration or worry that the procedure will negatively impact their sex life.

“The stigma usually comes from myths and misconceptions,” said Dr. Charles Ochieng, a doctor in Nairobi who says he’s performed more than 1,000 vasectomies. “Some men think their testicles will balloon and explode, or that you can’t have sex anymore, or that your ejaculation will be dry.”

Vasectomies are difficult to reverse, so they’re not a temporary form of birth control. But for families like Eric’s, who are certain they don’t want any more children, a vasectomy is a promising option.

Governments and development organizations simply haven’t invested in education around vasectomies; the targets of family planning have always primarily been women, said Fynn-Nyame.

If men like Eric are any indication, that change is beginning to happen, at least in Kenya. Like dozens of men before him, Eric walked out of counseling after his procedure with a lollipop in his mouth and bag of antibiotics in his hand.

Despite all of his anxiety beforehand, he said the procedure was “very fast, no pain!”

He even plans to tell his friends about it and recruit them for their own vasectomies—although not quite yet.

“Once I’m settled, I’m healed, and I can prove that everything is fine, you know, that nothing has stopped working,” he said.

“I think we’re going to start seeing huge numbers of men getting vasectomies,” said Dr. Ochieng. “It takes two to tango, so we should share the responsibility.”