"The great sperm-count debate"

Is teen pregnancy plummeting because sperm count just ain't what it used to be?

Published May 3, 2006 4:29PM (EDT)

Today is National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. No this doesn't mean that Plan B gets over-the-counter approval or that the government starts promoting condom use -- that would be "National Day to Actually Prevent Teen Pregnancy." But Slate has seized the opportunity to examine how teen pregnancy rates have dropped significantly in the past decade and to speculate about some of the surprising factors that may be behind the decrease.

Writing for Slate, Liza Mundy, who is working on a book about reproductive technology, reports that "between 1990 and 2000 the U.S. teen pregnancy rate plummeted by 28 percent, dropping from 117 to 84 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15-19. Births to teenagers are also down, as are teen abortion rates." Of course, as she's quick to point out, both the left and the right have jumped to take credit for this achievement. Mundy acknowledges that "liberal sex education and conservative abstinence initiatives" are probably both to thank "for the fact that fewer teenagers are ending up in school bathroom stalls sobbing over the results of a home pregnancy test."

But before we get too self-congratulatory, Mundy suggests we may be missing the most potent reason of all: decreasing sperm count in young men. In the late 1990s an American reproductive epidemiologist named Shanna Swan published a study confirming earlier findings that "sperm counts are dropping by about 1.5 percent a year in the United States and 3 percent in Europe and Australia, though they do not appear to be falling in the less-developed world." Mundy explains that while this may not sound like a lot, "cumulatively -- like compound interest -- a drop of 1 percent has a big effect." Swan's study further suggested that there is "regional variation in sperm counts: They tend to be lower in rural sectors and higher in cities, suggesting the possible impact of chemicals (such as pesticides) particular to one locality."

Mundy's article goes on to discuss other studies that have looked at the environmental impact of chemicals on sperm count and female fecundity. For example, wildlife biologists found that male alligators living in a contaminated Florida lake "have small phalluses and low testosterone levels, while females in the same lake had problems associated with abnormally high levels of estrogen." It's a fascinating, complicated article and includes some fun trivia such as: "Humans have the worst sperm except for gorillas and ganders of any animal on the planet." It also gives us a lot to ponder, namely, are chemical toxicants directly contributing to the end of the species? As Mundy says, "we may not want today's teenagers to become pregnant now, but we certainly want them to become pregnant in the future, providing they want to be."

In the meantime, it's always a good idea to use a condom.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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