Women are unfairly paying the price for men’s falling fertility, scientists have warned.
Mens sperm counts have reduced by more than 50 per cent worldwide since the 1970s with chemicals in the environment, pollution, steroids, protein shakes, and even tight underwear all blamed for the downturn.
But a widely used form of IVF which involves injecting a sperm directly into an egg, before implanting it into the mother, is now being used regularly to ‘bypass’ male infertility.
Scientists warned that the treatment infringes ‘the basic human rights and dignity of women’ because they are forced to undergo invasive procedures to harvest their eggs and then implant an embryo, even though they themselves are not infertile.
Since its introduction in 1992, use of the ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection)has soared and in 2014 it accounted for more than half of all assisted fertility treatments in the UK.
Professor Richard Sharpe, from the Medical Research Council Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, said ICSI was a crude method of by-passing a problem instead of treating it.
Speaking at a news briefing in London he said: “The treatments, and they’re quite invasive, are to the female partner.
“So the female is having to bear the burden of the male’s sub-fertility.”
In a new article in the journal Human Reproduction, Prof Sharpe added: “In a world in which we claim to be addressing the inequalities between men and women, this is a stand-out example of the infringement of basic human rights and dignity.
“Maybe women undergoing treatment during ICSI can begin to apply pressure at the point of delivery of (their) treatment, asking ‘why can’t you treat him rather than me?”‘
Prof Sharpe also warned that there was still no good term data on the long-term health impact of ICSI on the children it produced. Reports have shown that sperm counts of young men conceived through the treatment are half of those conceived naturally.
Prof Sharpe added: “We still don’t know what causes most cases of male infertility and so of course we don’t have the tools to correct it, because we don’t understand it.
“The flip side of that coin is that we can’t induce infertility for contraceptive purposes. We haven’t developed a new effective acceptable (male) contraceptive since the condom.”
Apart from its dependency on high levels of testosterone, the mechanism of sperm production remained a “big black box”, said Prof Sharpe.
“We should know how that works,” he said. “We still don’t.”
Similarly, the reason for falling sperm counts, which had dropped by 50 per cent in the UK between 1973 and 2011, largely remained a mystery.
The scientists called for a “detailed road map” for male infertility research aimed at highlighting key unanswered questions and delivering necessary funding.