‘Is it negligence or ignorance that fertility is seen as a female problem?’

BY AILEEN FEENEY, chief executive of the Fertility Network UK

Stone Age sculptors were not alone as across the globe and throughout millennia our ancestors depicted female genitalia in myriad ways. The story these vaginal symbols tell is a vital one that fertility is the most important aspect of human life; we must protect it. Without fertility, we are dust.

Fast forward 30,000 years to our apparently advanced age and it seems we have learnt nothing. We do not teach our children how important fertility is. They do not know its basics, its possibilities and limitations. They are not aware of how easily the flame of fertility is extinguished by age, weight, drugs, disease, occupation and environment. Collectively, we are only now beginning to recognise the potentially devastating impact that 21st-century lifestyles may be having on fertility, especially sperm health.

Which young adult leaves education knowing the female fertility vital statistics? 28: female fertility is already falling. 35: female fertility plummets. 42: the chance of becoming a biological mother is vanishingly small. Did you know the upper age limit for egg donation is 35? That’s because above 35 substantially reduced egg quality increases the risk of miscarriage. Yet in the UK, more than 68 per cent of women freezing their own eggs are over 35. The message isn’t being heard or are these women being exploited?

Everyone has heard of the female biological clock, but did you know the male reproductive system suffers the same fate? Men over 40 are half as likely to get their partners pregnant as men under 25. There is a significantly higher risk of miscarriage too. That’s why the recommended age limit for sperm donation is 40. We are failing our offspring and future generations if age and fertility are not part of sex education.

Myths about fertility are numerous. The recent Fertility Trends report from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) shatters several fertility misconceptions. The average age of women having IVF in the UK is just 35.5, but couples will have been trying to conceive for several years before fertility treatment, so on average women having IVF started trying for a baby in their early-30s. Fertility treatment is not the preserve of older women.

To date, fertility has been firmly cast as a female issue, irrespective of men being half of the fertility equation. But the HFEA’s data reveals infertility is now predominantly a male factor in origin. Male fertility problems are the most common reason for couples to seek fertility treatment (37 per cent), with female fertility problems and unexplained problems representing 31 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively.

Fertility problems are common, affecting one in six couples, so you will have a friend, family member or colleague affected. Despite this, infertility is too often ignored as the majority of couples (60 per cent) have to pay for their treatment, they are let down by their GP not providing appropriate information (74 per cent) and they are not supported at work by an effective fertility workplace policy (75 per cent). Why do so few firms enable employees to have time off for fertility treatment? Does your employer have a fertility policy?

Is it negligence or ignorance that fertility is seen as a female problem, not spoken openly about and insufficient support provided in the workplace? Will the way in which society views and responds to fertility issues change with the increasing recognition of fertility’s toll on men? For Palaeolithic people, female genitalia could symbolise fertility: the male role in reproduction was not fully recognised. Today, we know more about fertility, but we still have a long way to go in respecting it.