One in seven couples struggle to conceive, with male infertility accounting for almost a third of all cases. Michelle Morris meets one husband whose low sperm count forced him to come to terms with a life without children – until he and his wife were given new hope through Jewish family planning charity Chana.
Infertility can often be devastating for those living in close-knit family-orientated communities. Male infertility, however, is often overlooked, while the women – the proverbial child-bearers – tend to take the blame.
According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, of the one-in-seven couples who experience infertility, 30 percent of these are caused by male infertility. Clinical scientist Dr Sheryl Homa said that “male infertility is so marginalised, it is just criminal”.
There are many different factors affecting male fertility including infection, lifestyle factors and being overweight. Other reasons include poor sperm movement, damaged genetic material, hormone imbalances and “azoospermia” (low or no sperm count).
Last month, Jewish fertility organisation Chana highlighted the issue of male infertility by bringing to light one couple’s emotive story.
The anonymous husband was diagnosed with azoospermia. They tried to conceive for 18 months before their concern peaked and they consulted a doctor about testing.
It tends to be easier to test the man first, but because of the halachic issues revolving around not wasting the “potential for life”, the women is usually tested first in Orthodox communities. In this case, his wife was given blood tests and scans.
The husband recalls: “We did not want to tell family or friends as it such a private a matter for us, but this made us feel isolated. My wife had to take time off work and make up excuses so her bosses and colleagues did not know what she was really going through. It felt like we were leading a double life.
“As Judaism is so focused on family life, this experience made us feel particularly alone. It felt more difficult every time we went to social events, community events or shul, as there were either children present and people were talking happily about their children.”
The results of the blood tests and scans indicated that she had no fertility problems, so attention turned to the husband. He underwent scans and biopsies, all of which were “uncomfortable, painful, invasive and embarrassing”.
He adds: “It meant that, yet again, we were constantly juggling, taking time off work, not mentioning what was happening to us to those we are close to and care about us. We became so wrapped up in the problem.
“While this was going on, we watched friends our age get pregnant and have babies and it became more uncomfortable to be in a totally different situation to them. We felt so anxious that at the end of all these tests, we would still be no nearer to having a child of our own.”
He was diagnosed with azoospermia. When it became clear that treatment could not be done on the NHS, the couple approached the fertility organisation Chana.
“My wife met regularly with a Chana support worker, which was really helpful as there were certain things she could not discuss even with me as she was afraid of hurting my feelings.
“It was a lifeline to know that someone really understood what we were going through during the years it took to deal with my fertility problem.”
With Chana’s emotional and financial assistance, he underwent a sperm retrieval procedure called TESE, which involves a biopsy from the testes in an effort to find sperm. If sperm is found, a single one can then be injected directly into each of the woman’s eggs using an IVF procedure called ICSI.
He recalls: “It was difficult for me and my wife, as she had to undergo surgery.”
After these “lengthy, painful and arduous procedures” his wife became pregnant.
He regrets not approaching Chana sooner. “At the beginning we were still trying to make sense of our situation and weren’t sure if we wanted to talk about it. We carried the burden alone. It would have been helpful to have this support sooner.”
• Find out more about Chana at http://www.chana.org.uk/