161 18.10 Infertility

Created by CK-12 Foundation/Adapted by Christine Miller

Figure 18.10.1 Families all have something in common.

Family Portrait

What do all these families (Figure 18.10.1) have in common?  They were born!  Every person on this planet was conceived, carried in utero and then born.  While families come in all shapes, sizes and styles, we all came into existence in the same way.  Virtually all human societies past and present — value having children. Indeed, for many people, parenthood is an important life goal. Unfortunately, some people are unable to achieve that goal because of infertility.

What Is Infertility?

is the inability of a sexually mature adult to reproduce by natural means. For scientific and medical purposes, infertility is generally defined as the failure to achieve a successful pregnancy after at least one year of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse. Infertility may be primary or secondary. Primary infertility applies to cases in which an individual has never achieved a successful pregnancy. Secondary infertility applies to cases in which an individual has had at least one successful pregnancy, but fails to achieve another after trying for at least a year. Infertility is a common problem. The government of Canada reported that in 2019, 16% of Canadian couples experience infertility, a number which has doubled since the 1980s. If you look around at the couples you know, that means that almost 1 in 6 of them are having issues with fertility.

Causes of Infertility

is the result of a multi-step process. In order for a normal pregnancy to occur, a woman must release an from one of her , the ovum must go through an , a man’s must fertilize the ovum as it passes through the oviduct, and then the resulting must implant in the . If there is a problem with any of these steps, can result.

A couple’s infertility may be due to a problem with either the male or the female partner. As shown in the circle graph below (Figure 18.10.2), about 40% of infertility cases are due to female infertility, and about 30% are due to male infertility. The remaining 30% of cases are due to a combination of male and female problems or unknown causes.

18.10.2 Causes of Infertility
Figure 18.10.2 This graph shows that infertility affects males as often as females, and that the cause of infertility often is unexplained.

Causes of Male Infertility

Male infertility occurs when there are no, or too few, , or when the sperm are not healthy and motile and cannot travel through the female reproductive tract to fertilize an egg. A common cause of inadequate numbers or motility of sperm is varicocele, which is enlargement of blood vessels in the . This may raise the temperature of the and adversely affect sperm production. In other cases, there is no problem with the sperm, but there is a blockage in the male reproductive tract that prevents the sperm from being ejaculated.

Factors that increase a man’s risk of infertility include heavy alcohol use, drug abuse, cigarette smoking, exposure to environmental toxins (such as pesticides or lead), certain medications, serious diseases (such as kidney disease), and radiation or chemotherapy for cancer. Another risk factor is advancing age. Male fertility normally peaks in the mid-twenties and gradually declines after about age 40, although it may never actually drop to zero.

Causes of Female Infertility

Female infertility generally occurs due to one of two problems: failure to produce viable by the , or structural problems in the  or . The most common cause of female infertility is a problem with . Without ovulation, there are no ova to be fertilized. Anovulatory cycles (menstrual cycles in which ovulation does not occur) may be associated with no or irregular menstrual periods, but even regular menstrual periods may be anovulatory for a variety of reasons. The most common cause of anovulatory cycles is , which causes hormone imbalances that can interfere with normal ovulation. Another relatively common cause of anovulation is primary ovarian insufficiency. In this condition, the ovaries stop working normally and producing viable eggs at a relatively early age, generally before the age of 40.

Structural problems with the oviducts or uterus are less common causes of female infertility. The oviducts may be blocked as a result of . Another possible cause is pelvic inflammatory disease, which occurs when sexually transmitted infections spread to the oviducts or other female reproductive organs (see Figure 18.10.3). The infection may lead to scarring and blockage of the oviducts. If an ovum is produced and the oviducts are functioning — and a woman has a condition such as uterine fibroids — implantation in the uterus may not be possible. Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous clumps of tissue and muscle that form on the walls of the uterus.

18.10.3 Pelvic inflammatory disease
Figure 18.10.3 An infection of the Fallopian tubes may cause scarring and blockage of the tubes, so sperm cannot reach eggs for fertilization.

Factors that increase a woman’s risk of infertility include tobacco smoking, excessive use of alcohol, stress, poor diet, strenuous athletic training, and being overweight or underweight. Advanced age is even more problematic for females than males. Female fertility normally peaks in the mid-twenties, and continuously declines after age 30 and until menopause around the age of 52, after which the ovary no longer releases eggs. About 1/3 of couples in which the woman is over age 35 have fertility problems. In older women, more cycles are likely to be anovulatory, and the eggs may not be as healthy.

Diagnosing Causes of Infertility

Diagnosing the cause(s) of a couple’s infertility often requires testing both the man and the woman for potential problems. In men, the is likely to be examined for the number, shape, and motility of sperm. If problems are found with sperm, further studies are likely to be done, such as medical imaging to look for structural problems with the testes or ducts.

In women, the first step is most often determining whether is occurring. This can be done at home by carefully monitoring body temperature (it rises slightly around the time of ovulation) or using a home ovulation test kit, which is available over the counter at most drugstores. Whether or not ovulation is occurring can also be detected with blood tests or ultrasound imaging of the ovaries. If ovulation is occurring normally, then the next step may be an X-ray of the oviducts and uterus to see if there are any blockages or other structural problems. Another approach to examining the female reproductive tract for potential problems is laparoscopy. In this surgical procedure, a tiny camera is inserted into the woman’s abdomen through a small incision. This allows the doctor to directly inspect the reproductive organs.

Treating Infertility

Infertility often can be treated successfully. The type of treatment depends on the cause of infertility.

Treating Male Infertility

Medical problems that interfere with sperm production may be treated with medications or other interventions that may lead to the resumption of normal sperm production. If, for example, an infection is interfering with sperm production, then antibiotics that clear up the infection may resolve the problem. If there is a blockage in the male reproductive tract that prevents the of sperm, surgery may be able to remove the blockage. Alternatively, the man’s sperm may be removed from his body and then used for artificial insemination of his partner. In this procedure, the sperm are injected into the woman’s reproductive tract.

Treating Female Infertility

In females, it may be possible to correct blocked Fallopian tubes or uterine fibroids with surgery. Ovulation problems, on the other hand, are usually treated with hormones that act either on the or on the ovaries. Hormonal treatments that stimulate ovulation often result in more than one egg being ovulated at a time, thus increasing the chances of a woman having twins, triplets, or even higher multiple births. Multiple fetuses are at greater risk of being born too early or having health and developmental problems. The mother is also at greater risk of complications arising during pregnancy. Therefore, the possibility of multiple fetuses should be weighed in making a decision about this type of infertility treatment.

Assisted Reproductive Technology

Some cases of infertility are treated with . This is a collection of medical procedures in which ova are removed from the woman’s body and sperm are taken from the man’s body to be manipulated in ways that increase the chances of fertilization occurring. The eggs and sperm may be injected into one of the woman’s oviducts for fertilization to take place in vivo (in the body). More commonly, however, the eggs and sperm are mixed together outside the body so fertilization takes place in vitro (in a test tube or dish in a lab). The latter approach is illustrated in Figure 18.10.4. With in vitro fertilization, the fertilized eggs may be allowed to develop into embryos before being placed in the woman’s uterus.

18.10.4 Assisted Reproductive Technology
Figure 18.10.4 This figure shows one way ART procedures may be used to treat infertility. An egg is removed from the female reproductive tract, injected with sperm from her partner, and allowed to develop into an embryo in the lab. Then, the embryo is placed inside the woman’s uterus for implantation and development during the remainder of gestation.

ART has about a 40% chance of leading to a live birth in women under the age of 35, but only about a 20%t chance of success in women over the age of 35. Some studies have found a higher-than-average risk of birth defects in children produced by ART procedures, but this may be due to the generally higher ages of the parent — not the technologies used.

Other Approaches

Other approaches for certain causes of infertility include the use of a surrogate mother, a gestational carrier, or sperm donation.

  • surrogate mother is a woman who agrees to become pregnant using the man’s sperm and her own egg. The child, who will be the biological offspring of the surrogate and the male partner, is given up at birth for adoption by the couple. Surrogacy might be selected by women with no eggs or unhealthy eggs. A woman who carries a mutant gene for a serious genetic disorder might choose this option to ensure that the defective gene is not passed on to the offspring.
  • gestational carrier is a woman who agrees to receive a transplanted embryo from a couple and carry it to term. The child, who will be the biological offspring of the couple, is given to the parents at birth. A gestational carrier might be used by women who have normal ovulation but no uterus, or who cannot safely carry a fetus to term because of a serious health problem (such as kidney disease or cancer).
  • Sperm donation is the use of sperm from a fertile man (generally through artificial insemination) for cases in which the male partner in a couple is infertile, or in which a woman seeks to become pregnant without a male partner. A lesbian couple may use donated sperm to enable one of them to become pregnant and have a child. Sperm can be obtained from a sperm bank, which buys and stores sperm for artificial insemination, or a male friend or other individual may donate sperm to a specific woman.

Social and Ethical Issues Relating to Infertility

For people who have a strong desire for children of their own, infertility may lead to deep disappointment and depression. Individuals who are infertile may even feel biologically inadequate. Partners in infertile couples may argue and feel resentment toward each other, and married couples may get divorced because of infertility. Infertility treatments — especially ART procedures — are generally time-consuming and expensive. The high cost of the treatments can put them out of financial reach of many couples.

Ethical Concerns

Some people question whether the allocation of medical resources to infertility treatments is justified, and whether the resources could be better used in other ways. The status of embryos that are created in vitro and then not used for a pregnancy is another source of debate. Some people oppose their destruction on religious grounds, and couples may sometimes argue about what should be done with their extra embryos. Ethical issues are also raised by procedures that increase the chances of multiple births, because of the medical and developmental risks associated with multiple births.

Infertility in Developing Countries

Infertility is an under-appreciated problem in the poorer nations of the world, because of assumptions about overpopulation problems and high birth rates in developing countries. In fact, infertility is at least as great a problem in developing as in developed countries. High rates of health problems and inadequate health care in the poorer nations increase the risk of infertility. At the same time, infertility treatments are usually not available — or are far too expensive — for the vast majority of people who may need them. In addition, in many developing countries, the production of children is highly valued. Children may be needed for family income generation and economic security of the elderly. It is not uncommon for infertility to lead to social stigmatization, psychological problems, and abandonment by spouses.

18.10 Summary

  • is the inability of a sexually mature adult to reproduce by natural means. It is defined scientifically and medically as the failure to achieve a successful pregnancy after at least one year of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse.
  • About 40% of infertility in couples is due to female infertility, and another 30% is due to male infertility. In the remaining cases, a couple’s infertility is due to problems in both partners, or to unknown causes.
  • Male infertility occurs when there are no, or too few, healthy, motile . This may be caused by problems with , or by blockage of the male reproductive tract that prevents sperm from being ejaculated. Risk factors for male infertility include heavy alcohol use, smoking, certain medications, and advancing age, to name just a few.
  • Female infertility occurs due to failure to produce viable ova by the ovaries, or structural problems in the oviducts or uterus. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common cause of failure to produce viable ova. and uterine fibroids are possible causes of structural problems in the oviducts and uterus. Risk factors for female infertility include smoking, stress, poor diet, and older age, among others.
  • Diagnosing the cause(s) of a couple’s infertility generally requires testing both the man and the woman for potential problems. For men, semen is likely to be examined for adequate numbers of healthy, motile sperm. For women, signs of ovulation are monitored, for example, with an ovulation test kit or ultrasound of the ovaries. For both partners, the reproductive tract may be medically imaged to look for blockages or other abnormalities.
  • Treatments for infertility depend on the cause. For example, if a medical problem is interfering with sperm production, medication may resolve the underlying problem so sperm production is restored. Blockages in either the male or the female reproductive tract can often be treated surgically. If there are problems with ovulation, hormonal treatments may stimulate ovulation.
  • Some cases of infertility are treated with . This is a collection of medical procedures in which ova and sperm are taken from the couple and manipulated in a lab to increase the chances of fertilization occurring and an embryo forming. Other approaches for certain causes of infertility include the use of a surrogate mother, gestational carrier, or sperm donation.
  • Infertility can negatively impact a couple socially and psychologically, and it may be a major cause of marital friction or even divorce. Infertility treatments may raise ethical issues relating to the costs of the procedures and the status of embryos that are created in vitro, but not used for pregnancy. Infertility is an under-appreciated problem in developing countries, where birth rates are high and children have high economic — as well as social — value. In these countries, poor health care is likely to lead to more problems with infertility and fewer options for treatment.

18.10 Review Questions

  1. What is infertility? How is infertility defined scientifically and medically?
  2. What percentage of infertility in couples is due to male infertility? What percentage is due to female infertility?
  3. Identify causes of and risk factors for male infertility.
  4. Identify causes of and risk factors for female infertility.
  5. How are causes of infertility in couples diagnosed?
  6. How is infertility treated?
  7. Discuss some of the social and ethical issues associated with infertility or its treatment.
  8. Why is infertility an under-appreciated problem in developing countries?
  9. Describe two similarities between causes of male and female infertility.
  10. Explain the difference between males and females in terms of how age affects fertility.
  11. Do you think that taking medication to stimulate ovulation is likely to improve fertility in cases where infertility is due to endometriosis? Explain your answer.

18.10 Explore More

How in vitro fertilization (IVF) works – Nassim Assefi and Brian A. Levine, TED-Ed, 2015

A journey through infertility — over terror’s edge | Camille Preston | TEDxBeaconStreet, TEDx Talks, 2014.

Smoking Marijuana May Lower Sperm Count by 33%, David Pakman Show, 2015.

ivf embryo developing over 5 days by fertility Dr Raewyn Teirney, Fertility Specialist Sydney, 2014.

Homosexuality: It’s about survival – not sex | James O’Keefe | TEDxTallaght, 2016.

 

Attributions

Figure 18.10.1

Figure 18.10.2

Causes of infertility in Canada by Christine Miller is in the Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/).

Figure 18.10.3

1024px-Blausen_0719_PelvicInflammatoryDisease by BruceBlaus on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license. 

Figure 18.10.4

1024px-Blausen_0060_AssistedReproductiveTechnology by BruceBlaus on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license. 

References

Blausen.com Staff. (2014). Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436.

David Pakman Show. (2015, September 1). Smoking marijuana may lower sperm count by 33%. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqA8uAjvEdM

Fertility Specialist Sydney. (2014, April 11). ivf embryo developing over 5 days by fertility Dr Raewyn Teirney. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6-v4eF9dyA&t=5s

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2019, May 28). Fertility. Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/fertility/fertility.html

TED-Ed. (2015, May 7). How in vitro fertilization (IVF) works – Nassim Assefi and Brian A. Levine.  YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P27waC05Hdk&t=4s

TEDx Talks. (2014, June 26). A journey through infertility — over terror’s edge | Camille Preston | TEDxBeaconStreet. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BBmMtVfZ4Y&t=2s

TEDx Talks. (2016, November 15). Homosexuality: It’s about survival – not sex | James O’Keefe | TEDxTallaght. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Khn_z9FPmU&t=1s

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Human Biology by Christine Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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