Women used to be blamed for infertility; now, men get the rap

Do you shoot blanks? This is the question on every woman's lips. As evidence grows of the alarming decline in male fertility (nothing, alas, that a little Viagra can solve) women with an eye on procreation are trying to determine whether getting it together with you is just a waste of time.

To help them sort out the dads from the duds, UK scientists have developed a new DIY fertility kit, which will be on sale here next year (it has just hit the chemists' shops in Switzerland). Fertell measures both the man's sperm and its activity; and the level of follicle-stimulating hormones, which is an indicator of the number of eggs in the woman's ovaries. His and hers tests, then, which will bypass testing in a clinic and will be quick and inexpensive. No burden on the state - just on the couple desperately seeking a baby or two.

Desperate is the right word. Even in a society where you are more than the sum of your offspring, infertility is regarded as a failure - or at least an achievement, on the long list to be ticked, that you've missed out on.

If lack of children is still regarded as a failure, it is no longer a rare one. Already, one in six couples has difficulty conceiving; and with more and more of us postponing having children for longer and longer, that figure is set to rise. You would think, from the alarm bells ringing in newspapers and on television chat shows, that infertility was a contemporary phenomenon, a plague sent to haunt the 21st century. Wrong - childless couples have been around for millennia.

What is new is that men are now having to share the blame - in as many as 40 per cent of childless marriages - that women, for generations, have carried. The Old Testament and medieval chronicles are filled with barren women who can conceive only through miracles, or who have been condemned to their unhappy and unnatural state by some terrible past sin. Their husbands or lovers, instead, got away scot-free: no talk of sperm counts then; and in this unequal contest, the male winners could play Henry VIII and rid themselves of the female losers in any divorce court, no questions asked. If she wasn't going to promote the dynasty, what use was she?

Well into the 20th century, all childless marriages were regarded as unhappy ones (Lady Chatterley's was a case in point) - and society was quick to hold the woman as responsible for the failure to reproduce. Complete ignorance about what made a woman tick, sexually, went hand in hand with total certainty that if there was a problem "in that department", it was her problem.

Now, suddenly, men's performance - in terms of sperm count as well as between the sheets - is coming under increasing scrutiny. The pressure that, for countless years, was placed on nubile virgins is now shared by their male counterparts. This is true equality - and will change for ever the way childlessness is tackled.

From self-help groups to commercial sperm-donor websites, from fast-track adoption laws to cheaper IVF treatment - men who own up to infertility will drive progress in all areas linked to possible resolutions for their plight. With macho men clamouring for help to spawn Junior, pharmaceutical companies and research institutes will throw ever more money at the cause, and get their skates on to find a solution - fast. Indeed, moves in this direction are already under way: IVF clinics are mushrooming, and fertility experts are raking in millions while attaining guru status among the hordes who seek their miraculous cures.

Equally important, now that we publicly recognise that not all men can be natural fathers, the way we view infertility will change radically. From being the female condition that dare not speak its name, infertility will become a 21st-century issue for which there can be solutions and a great deal of sympathy. Above all, it will not be one of those problems left to fester in the women's room.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Just you wait until I grow up