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Male Fertility

Volume 569: debated on Thursday 29 February 1996

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3.24 p.m.

What is their reaction to recently published evidence of a decline in male fertility.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health
(Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, several studies suggest that there may have been a decline in sperm count and sperm quality in men over the past few decades, but there is no evidence as to whether those changes have affected men's fertility.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Even allowing for exaggerations in recent reports, if there is a biological change of the type suggested, that raises all kinds of questions, as I am sure the noble Baroness will agree. It has been suggested that excessive amounts of chemicals are being released into the environment. Can the Minister say whether that is likely to have an effect on male fertility? Secondly, it has also been suggested that the large amounts of female hormones which are being released into the water supply have resulted in the creation of what are called hermaphroditic fish. Is that likely to extend to human beings?

My Lords, perhaps I may answer first the question concerning the excessive amounts of chemicals. At the moment we are very unsure about this issue. A great deal of research is being undertaken by the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Medical Research Council and the Health and Safety Executive. In addition, a working group is exploring what more should be done in other areas. The answer that I have just given also applies to hormones in the water supply. Research is also going on in that field.

My Lords, I wish to support the Minister totally, on this occasion at least. Is she aware that while there is no evidence of a decline in human male fertility in this country, smoking, drinking, excessive sleep and sitting on leather benches for long periods of time—all of which are prevalent in your Lordships' House—are certainly causes of male infertility?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be well aware because he is an expert in this field, this issue is partly age-related. I understand that those men horn before the 1960s have a much higher sperm count—and looking around at your Lordships—

My Lords, would not the last supplementary Question have come much better from a hereditary rather than a life Peer?

My Lords, your Lordships should be aware that today is 29th February. Noble Lords should be very careful that on this occasion noble Baronesses do not pick their Peer.

My Lords, is the Minister aware in relation to this subject that the EC is now in the process of trying to dictate what size of condom men in Europe should use? Can she tell us whether that will be advantageous or whether it will exacerbate the situation?

My Lords, we are dealing with the subject of fertility, not infertility.

My Lords, I have no wish to contribute to the levity of this debate, but there is solid medical evidence, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, to indicate that there is an inverse relationship between the temperature of the testes and the level of sperm count and consequent fertility. Because coldness of the testes contributes to an increased sperm count, that has been thought by some to favour the wearing of the kilt.

Is it not also the case that there is increasing international evidence to suggest that the chemicals which may give rise to oestrogen-like substances in the environment have been one of the major factors leading to this decline in the human sperm count?

My Lords, there is an opportunity here for somebody to do a Ph.D on the fertility of Scottish Peers in particular.

With regard to oestrogen, as I said, a great deal of research is being undertaken. The findings are contradictory and it is clear that this is an area which needs further study.

My Lords, is it not a fact that with the vast numbers of spermatozoa which are released in the orgasm of the normal male, there is no danger whatsoever for the future of the human race? Would it not be better for research to be directed to other more vital areas in this field?

My Lords, I understand that one sperm will suffice, so perhaps quality is more important.

For many married couples, this issue is a cause for concern. While I appreciate the noble Lord's view that one should be careful when undertaking research to get value for money, I believe this is an area that ought to be considered, especially since strong environmental factors are concerned.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is growing demand for rather expensive therapies which may or not be efficacious in male infertility? Is there a question of these being available on the health service? I understand that the therapy most likely to succeed costs about £ 10,000.

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness refers to ICSI, which is a very new treatment. It was licensed in 1993. It is only now becoming generally available. However, it is for health authorities to decide on their priorities and whether they feel that that specific treatment should have preference over others.

My Lords, are the Government aware that in 1967 there was evidence of an increase in oestrogen-like substances in rivers, and that the junior Minister responsible for water supplies (it was myself) caused certain primitive research to be done? It yielded the result that there was an increase but that a man would have to drink 80 pints of tap water a day for that increase to have any effect on his fertility. Might it not be worth while to go back over that ground to see whether the figure of 80 pints is now somewhat lower?

My Lords, much research is being undertaken in this field. As regards the amount of water that men should or should not drink, I shall wait for the result of the research.