Be fruitful and multiply. The Biblical command sounds so straightforward, yet it can be anything but.
In order to conceive a child, some aspiring parents — be they lesbian couples, single mothers, or straight men with poor sperm quality — need a little outside help… at least a few milliliters of help, to be precise, in the form of donated sperm.
But the process, which can be legally complex as well as socially and physically awkward, isn’t always smooth sailing. Donating — or receiving — Jewish sperm presents its own set of difficulties that can leave those involved feeling like they’re swimming upstream.
Here are six things you need to know about Jews and their sperm.
1) Israel’s Weak Spot: Its Sperm
A 2012 study of Israeli sperm donors found a noticeable decline in sperm quality over a 15-year period. Sperm counts fell by over a third, from 106 million sperm per milliliter of semen to 68 million.
Many scientists believe that sperm quality is dropping throughout the developed world, though it may be declining faster in Israel, according to Dr. Ronit Haimov-Kochman, the study’s lead researcher.
If current trends continue, Israeli sperm donors could drop to 20 million sperm per milliliter, the lower limit of levels considered normal, by 2030, according to the study.
Haimov-Kochman, who oversees the Hadassah Medical Center’s sperm bank in Jerusalem, called the decline “significant and fast,” but cautioned that the study was small and limited to vetted sperm donors, who are selected for their particularly high quality and abundant sperm.
But that only makes the study’s conclusions more worrisome. If the best sperm donors — whom Haimov-Kochman calls the “A-team of sperm” — are seeing sharp declines, the average Israeli male, who is less fertile to begin with, may be experiencing drops in sperm quality he can’t afford.
2) Got Milk? Could Be a Problem
Scientists still aren’t certain what is causing the purported worldwide drop in sperm quality, let alone the peculiarly steep decline in Israel. A variety of theories have been floated, from exposure to cell phone radiation to tight-fitting clothing to climate change.
Like many researchers, Haimov-Kochman suspects that endocrine disruptors, chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormones, are primarily to blame. She reserves special concern for compounds that mimic the estrogen hormone, which plays an important role in human reproductive health. These chemicals may interfere with sperm quality in adults, and could cause lifelong damage to the testicles of males exposed in the womb.
“It seems that we swim in a sea full of estrogen and estrogen-like products,” she said. “And men are the first to be harmed.”
One of these products is bisphenol-A, a compound used in a variety of plastic products, from dental fillings to DVDs to the lining of food cans.
Traces of estrogens are also found in drinking water, thanks to manure runoff from factory farms and even birth control medication, which can enter the water supply through women’s urine. In arid Israel, crops are irrigated with partially treated wastewater, which may contain higher levels of estrogens than better-filtered drinking water. The plants, in turn, may absorb residual hormones from the water, and pass along their toxic gifts to consumers at dinner, according to Haimov-Kochman.
“We’re not 100% sure that this water is devoid of hormones,” Haimov-Kochman said. “We just don’t know.”
Milk is another possible source of unwanted hormones. Historically, cows were only milked after giving birth, when they would produce milk anyway. But industrial farming methods allow cows to be milked while they are pregnant, when levels of estrogen in the milk can spike.
Haimov-Kochman collected milk samples from across the world and discovered elevated hormone levels in those from Israel and other developed countries, which use the aggressive milking practice.