For centuries, woman have been the subject of infertility blame and scrutiny. But is it actually a man’s problem? And seriously- should it matter?
Fertility Of The Gods
Infertility is a tale as old as time. Literally. Difficulty with conception has been a major social and medical fixation throughout human history, dating as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Medicine at the time was steeped in magic, and infertile women had their own fertility god, Nephtys. However, problems conceiving were not considered divine punishment, but an illness that needed to be diagnosed and treated. Women underwent thorough examinations based on the idea that the genital organs were in continuity with the rest of the body. This way of thinking was adopted by many medieval physicians and practised for hundreds of years. Male infertility was also often discussed in ancient medical records.
Centuries later, Jewish medicine would dominate, and embrace a more biblical view from the Old Testament. Religion was science, and sin was believed to be the reason women were not fruitful to “multiply and replenish the earth”. Problems conceiving were considered a divine curse, and male infertility was not recognized. This belief and fear prevailed throughout the Middle Ages.
Coming Of Age
It was not until the Renaissance that magic and the gods were replaced by the first real concepts of modern medicine. Breakthroughs in medicine and science soon resolved many mysteries of the human anatomy and in particular, the female body. By 1562, very primitive forms of artificial insemination emerged as husbands were being advised to put their finger in the vagina after intercourse to promote conception. Although great advancements were being made, infertility was still synonymous with women. It was rare the man was considered as the cause.
During the next several hundred years the world would witness the first “test-tube baby”, born in 1978, and in 1981, the first baby via IVF. Today more than 5 million babies have been born thanks to fertility research and the science of in vitro fertilisation.
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So Who’s To Blame?
The short answer is- no one. Today nearly 1 in 6 couples need medical help to have a baby. Yet, despite incredible achievements in modern medicine and the knowledge physicians and scientists have about fertility, society as a whole still points the infertility finger in one direction.
Women may face infertility problems for a number of reasons, most notably being age.
Women are born with a finite number of eggs- one to two million to be exact. These eggs are stored in the ovaries and released throughout the reproductive years, usually beginning between the ages of o10-15 years old. With each year of ovulation, the number and quality of eggs diminish. By 30 the chances of having a baby begin to decrease by 3-5% each year. After 40, fertility reduces to an even greater extent. For women who wish to begin a family later in life this can be a major issue, and IVF is often a last resort.
Other leading causes include damage to the fallopian tubes, which can be caused by pelvic infections, endometriosis, and scarring from previous pelvic surgeries. The fallopian tubes carry the eggs from the ovaries to the uterus, and damage may prevent contact between the egg and sperm. Hormones may also be the culprit. Some women experience problems with ovulation and the synchronized hormonal changes which promote the release of an egg from the ovary and the thickening of the uterine wall. The changes simply do not occur.
Of the 1 in 6 couples who need help conceiving, nearly half of them are experience infertility as a result of poor sperm quality. Unlike women, men produce a constant supply of sperm, producing about 1,500 per second. During a single male orgasm, millions of sperm may be released, but only one will successfully fertilise the egg. Thanks to semen analysis, fertility specialists are able to determine a males sperm count, quality and motility. Many young, otherwise healthy, men are being affected and researchers believe it is a combination of diet, lifestyle and “gender-bending” chemicals. In other 1-5% of cases, the cause of male infertility may be due to a blocked duct, obstructing the semen from ejaculating fully.
While the lack of knowledge about male infertility is prevalent throughout society, the frightening part is the ignorance about infertility some healthcare systems continue to demonstrate. Often without hesitation, focus is put on the woman when couples seek help. This could led to many invasive, complex (and costly) fertility treatments.
In an interview with Mail Online, UK couple, Dennis and Kelly Robinson, open up about their experience with the NHS and male infertility.
When Dennis and his wife Kelly, 33, went to their GP after struggling for 18 months to conceive, the doctor referred them to a gynecologist- by definition a specialist in women’s problems, despite the fact Kelly must have been fertile because she already had a son, Edward, from her previous marriage.
Kelly was subjected to half a dozen invasive examinations and tests which continued for more than a year and at one stage left her with a dangerous post-operative infection. Unsurprisingly, they all the showed she was fully fertile.
It was only then that medical attention was directed towards Dennis. Two straightforward and quick tests performed two months apart showed he had a very low sperm count.
The problem with male infertility is not that it exists, but that no one, including some medical professionals, is willing to talk about it. More and more studies also suggest that the male infertility epidemic is not a personal problem, but a major public health crisis.
Sedentary lifestyles and obesity can sabotage the reproductive capacity of men, as well as long-term harm from cigarettes. It’s even been found that by-products from some plastics mimic the effects of female hormones in the male body and are damaging to sperm.
Read More: IVF Explained In 5 Easy Steps
Can Infertility Be Prevented?
Infertility may occur for a number of reasons, so their is no fool proof way to ensure prevention. However, to protect fertility, specialist strongly encourage both men and women to lead a healthy lifestyle. This includes:
- Avoiding smoking cigarettes and marijuana
- Avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals
- Avoidong excessive alcohol use
- Limiting sex partners and using condoms to reduce the risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection
- Stay at a body weight that is close to the ideal for your height
Infertility is not a “woman’s problem”- or a man’s
When partners find themselves having trouble conceiving, the first step is not to point fingers, but to consider both parties. Often times infertility is due to difficulties from both sides. It is necessary to find a medical professional or specialist who promotes testing the fertility of the man and woman before proceeding with any further procedures.
Also, and possibly more import, infertility can be emotionally draining. For couples who have dreamed of starting a family, experiencing infertility problems can be devastating. Furthermore, the testing and treatments themselves can be exhausting and frustrating. Instead of looking to the gods and playing the century old blame game, couples should approach infertility together-as a team.
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