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5 March 1996

Sperm: do men measure up today?

David Nolan examines the latest panic about men's health - the falling sperm counts controversy.

Are men becoming infertile? A study in the British Medical Journal points out an apparent decline both in sperm numbers and motility (their ability to swim). Not only that, there has apparently also been a big increase in the numbers of deformed and useless sperm which are of little use in the reproductive process. This study, from the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh, was motivated by a World Health Organisation survey which showed that men today may have half the sperm count of those born 50 years ago. The press have seized on the issue as further proof that men do not measure up in the 1990s. If things go on as they are, the subtext is, the human race is in trouble.

In fact things are far less clear-cut than media reports suggest. The 'decline' noted in the WHO study is entirely due to the fact that the statisticians increased the lower limits of what are considered normal sperm counts. Dr Richard Sharpe of the Medical Research Council has pointed out that, over a period of months, the numbers of sperm produced by the same man can vary from seven million per millilitre to 170 million per millilitre. Nobody can explain that either. As New Scientist magazine puts it, 'most of the evidence accumulated so far is dogged by uncertainty'.

One indisputable fact is that as many as half of all pregnancies in the UK in any given year are unplanned. This means that nearly half a million women a year become pregnant by accident. Hardly a sign of wilting sperm or an increasingly infertile species.

The recent furore is clearly not really about a sperm crisis at all; it is more of a symptom of the general mood of doom and gloom which permeates society today.

All of the many speculative explanations for the apparent decline in sperm counts put the blame on some aspect of modern living - from car-driving and x-rays to oestrogens in the contraceptive pill or pesticides in the environment. The underlying assumption is that everything is changing for the worse, and that men - the traditional exemplars of strength and vitality in society - are on the slide. As the Daily Telegraph put it, 'It is virility, more than fertility, that is declining.'

If there is a decline in sperm count we can be pretty sure, on past evidence, that it is just another adaptation to a changing environment. Humanity has evolved and developed on this basis throughout history. The morbid preoccupations with health and the fate of humanity tell us much more about society's unhealthy state of mind today than they do about the future state of men's reproductive capacity.
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