Medical Spotlight: fertility, infertility and technology

There’s a lot of hype about fertility these days, with ever-increasing media showcasing the latest scientific opinions regarding the causes of infertility, how to preserve sperm and egg quality, the menu of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), anecdotal stories on the success or failure of technology, post-menopausal celebrity pregnancies, ticking ‘biological clocks’, embryo and egg freezing, and surrogacy abroad, to name a few hot topics that frequently parade the headlines. It’s no surprise, really, given that in 2013 the estimated 5 millionth baby was born as a result of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), since the first conception in 1978. As a PhD student who conducts research on media representations of fertility and reproductive technology and has set up various Google and Twitter alerts to stay abreast of the latest news, I’m lucky to even read half of the information that circulates. Why the boom in fertility media? Are more people struggling with infertility or is the infertility assistance industry simply expanding? And, just what is infertility anyway and how does the average person make sense of all the conflicting information?

Let’s start with the basics, although even an agreed-upon definition of infertility is difficult. According the World Health Organisation (WHO), the clinical definition of infertility is ‘a disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse.’ Some physicians argue the time-frame of twelve months should be reduced to six months for women over the age of 35, the age at which fertility is believed to sharply decline[1]. A woman who has previously conceived, but struggles to do so currently, is ascribed the term of ‘secondary infertility’. Interestingly, these definitions say nothing about the frequency or timing of sexual intercourse, which are key volitional components of conception. Further, these rather arbitrary definitions can be contrasted with recent research which suggests that two to four years of unprotected intercourse, including women over the age of 35, has a relatively high probability to result in natural conception[2].

So how long should you wait to talk to you GP or a fertility specialist if you’re struggling to conceive?

First, it might be worth doing a bit of your own research to better understand the menstrual cycle and the most likely times to get pregnant, the lifestyle factors that may hinder or enhance fertility (although these are also widely debated), and the various options for assistance, should the difficulty be ongoing. As with all information on the internet, it’s hit and miss. You’re likely to come upon a range of ‘experts’ and average Joe’s who might completely contradict one another. Fertility, like nutrition and exercise, is an industry of its own. Ultimately, as with all health issues, each individual makes the final decision about whom to trust. If you prefer the traditional Western Medicine route, you might like to start with IVF Australia which provides basic infertility info and contact details to follow up with a fertility specialist in your area. Most local IVF centres offer free information sessions to answer questions and explain the technologies their centres use. If you’re interested in the cutting-edge technological developments, Monash IVF is a world-renowned industry leader and provides regular updated information. Or, if want to read about people’s personal experiences with infertility and treatment, you may prefer to check out one of the numerous forums, blogs or message boards which allow users to anonymously ask questions and seek support:

And, just in case you’re reading this because of a friend or partner who’s struggling to conceive, you’d be well-advised to verse yourself in some basic Infertility Etiquette.