What’s behind declining sperm counts and fertility?
In the 1992 dystopian novel, The Children of Men, P. D. James tells the story of a world where no child has been born in 26 years. It’s a world without hope or purpose. Mass suicide by the elderly is common, and the not-yet-elderly are urged to watch pornography in vain hopes of stimulating libidos and reproduction.
Mind you, the story is set in our very own year of 2021. In the book, male sperm counts collapsed in 1994 — called “Year Omega” in the novel — with the last children being born in 1995. While James’ story is fiction, in the real 2021, life may be imitating art. Male sperm counts around the world are in decline and, by one estimate, a real “Year Omega” could arrive in 2045.
According to a new book by Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, between 1973 and 2011 sperm counts in Western males dropped by 59%. In the 10 years since then, things have gotten worse. As Swan writes, “If you look at the curve on sperm count and project it forward — which is always risky — it reaches zero in 2045 . . . That’s a little concerning, to say the least.”
The decline in male sperm counts coincides with a precipitous decline in fertility rates, not only in the West but increasingly in the developing world too. Half of the world’s countries have fertility rates below replacement level as of now, and by 2050 this is expected to rise to two-thirds. The obvious questions are, one, what role do declining sperm counts play in this fertility drop? And two, what’s behind the declining sperm counts?
Swan acknowledges that nonbiological factors, such as “contraception, cultural shifts and the cost of having children are likely” to have contributed to declining birth rates. But she insists that there is ample evidence for biological reasons, as well. Besides the decline in birth rates, she points to things such as “increasing miscarriage rates, more genital abnormalities among boys and earlier puberty for girls.”
As for the cause in declining sperm counts, Swan and others single out “endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment, including phthalates and bisphenol-A” better known as BPA. These chemicals are found in “plastics, pesticides, cosmetics and even ATM receipts.” In addition to the environmental factors, there are lifestyle factors, such as tobacco and marijuana use, and obesity that might also be affecting sperm counts. Regardless of what’s causing lower sperm counts, the drop is real. Throw in cultural attitudes toward marriage and childrearing, and the trend is indeed “concerning.”
While it’s difficult to imagine a Children of Men-like scenario, we are already seeing the effects of the decline in fertility around the world: aging populations, a shortage of working-age adults, and 70 million men in China and India without a reasonable prospect of getting married.
Between our treatment of the environment and our cultural attitudes and practices, it is almost as if we are following the recommendations of an “extinction consultant.” If we asked this consultant the best way to disregard and even rebel against God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply,” his answer would likely have resembled what we are currently doing.
We can do something, of course, about the chemicals which Swan and others point to as being factors in the declining sperm rate. That, at best, would only slow the trajectory of our demographic demise. There are cultural factors, however, that are far more important and would remain untouched. Not to mention, for many people, especially in the West, the answer to every environmental and social problem from climate change to poverty is “fewer people.”
That makes the Guardian’s headline about Swan’s book so ironic: “Falling sperm counts ‘threaten human survival,’ expert warns.” Given the Guardian’s track record, and that of similar publications, you would expect them be cheering for our possible extinction, or at the very least to look on the bright side: “At least the polar bears will be OK.”
The only way forward is somehow reversing the anti-human and anti-natalist worldview that is driving us toward a demographic crisis. In James’ 1992 novel, hope takes the form of a miraculous birth and a baptism. That’s a pretty good summary of what hope could look like for us in 2021.
Certainly, it will require a lot more than banning chemicals from water bottles. It will require from us, including those of us in the Church, what the New Testament calls metanoia, a change of mind that results in a transformed way of life.
Originally published at BreakPoint
From BreakPoint. Reprinted with the permission of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. "BreakPoint®" and "The Colson Center for Christian Worldview®" are registered trademarks of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
John Stonestreet is the President of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and co-host with Eric Metaxas of Breakpoint, the Christian worldview radio program founded by the late Chuck Colson. He is co-author of A Practical Guide to Culture, A Student's Guide to Culture and Restoring All Things.