Sperm counts have been decreasing for decades. Nobody seems to know why it’s happening, and not much is being done to find out, but we could be facing a public health disasterby Philip Ball / July 31, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The last time I checked—about 16 years ago—my sperm count was rather feeble. That didn’t feel like the devastating blow to my manhood that it might once have been. It’s a common enough problem: an estimated one in 20 young men (I was hardly that even then) have sperm counts low enough to impair fertility. But neither does it feel that the matter is taken very seriously. Doctors tend to shrug: “Oh, so that’s the problem.”
“Anything I can do?” I asked my GP. “Not really,” he replied indifferently, not bothering to check if I was a heavy drinker or what my diet was like—both factors that have been shown to cause trouble for sperm.
For centuries, science has ignored the potential role of the male in infertility. The default assumption that it was the woman’s fault wasn’t fair, but the consequence is that we know a lot today about the causes of female infertility, and have many -potential -treatments. Male infertility, in contrast, remains rather mysterious and little researched. One group of experts on male health wrote recently of our “andrological ignorance,” an indifference reflected also by the continued lack of a “male pill” for birth control.
This ignorance about fertility in men is alarming, because sperm counts seem to have been decreasing steadily and significantly for decades. The issues involved, however, are so hopelessly tangled up with received ideas about gender roles and identity that they are being neglected. Something disturbing is going on, and the consequences for health and society could be profound.
A complex legacy
The lack of interest in this aspect of men’s health certainly does not reflect discrimination against them. Rather, the relative indifference to male infertility comes from a complex legacy, much of which is actually misogynistic. Aristotle’s notion that the man was primarily responsible for procreation, the woman merely providing the passive “soil” for the seed, was dominant until at least the 17th century, when William Harvey postulated that ex ova omne vivum (all living things come from eggs). But the mammalian ovum wasn’t actually discovered until 1827, and even today our cellular story of conception insists on the active, plucky role of the little sperm for which the egg sits passively in waiting.