One of the major health concerns of men today is low sperm count. Reports that sperm count has plummeted in Western countries have sparked panic over the future of fatherhood and even the apocalyptic end of the human race. But a new paper from Harvard calls out the concern over dropping sperm counts as alarmist bullshit — and sexist and racist bullshit to boot.
Scientists have worried about falling sperm counts for half a century, but the fervor reached new heights in 2017 with the publication of the largest analysis of the data to date. The study found that from 1973 to 2011, sperm count dropped by 59 percent in men in Western countries, and that the decline is likely to continue. During this time, there was not a significant sperm count drop in non-Western countries.
Armed with this evidence, so-called men’s rights activists have seized on the study to promote their agenda, arguing that the social feminization of boys has hurt their fertility. One prominent far-right conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, claimed that the drop in sperm count drop was due to men’s social status being eroded, and that soy products, which contain a type of plant estrogen, are feminizing men. White supremacists jumped on the bandwagon to bemoan that liberals have begun the fall of Western civilization.
The authors of that 2017 analysis did little to combat these unscientific views, and in some cases even fueled the fire of misogyny. “Social factors could definitely influence this,” one of the study authors, Hagai Levine, told the New York Times in 2018. “We are animals. The social rank, the socioeconomic position, is important.”
In a new article, a team of researchers mostly from Harvard University argue that these types of assumptions and biases are a reason to think twice about the 2017 analysis, dropping sperm counts, and what that means for fertility.
First, there is no evidence that the drop in sperm count is linked to fertility issues. Medical experts don’t get concerned about fertility until sperm count falls below 15 million sperm per mL — and even then it’s still possible to get pregnant.
The analysis found that men in Western countries — those in North America, Europe, and Australia, and New Zealand — had an average of 99 million sperm per mL in 1973, which is considered normal. By 2011, the number had dropped to 47 million sperm per mL. But this is also considered normal. There’s no evidence that within a normal range higher sperm count makes a person more fertile.
If declining sperm count really does have an impact on the ability to get pregnant, fertility doctors would have seen an increase in demand in recent decades. But they haven’t. The number of infertile couples hasn’t budged since 2002, and fertility may actually be improving, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, the “Other” populations — those in South America, Asia, and Africa — and Western populations haven’t remained static over time. Many people from non-Western countries have migrated to the West in recent decades, which throws off the comparison even further.
Researchers shouldn’t throw away concerns about declining sperm count, the Harvard team argues. But they should question their biases, stop assuming that it’s the end of the world, and refrain from jumping to conclusions too soon.
What evidence does suggest is that sperm health is a clue to overall health. So, we may not be headed toward a fertility apocalypse, but men in Western countries should probably put more effort into keeping themselves fit and healthy.