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A Piece of the Reproductive Puzzle

Posted: 06/11/07 05:47 PM ET

I would love to work as the person who thinks up names for products having to do with our sexual organs and reproductive systems. How fun to actually market remedies for these most hidden, mysterious and powerful of bodily structures. How satisfied I would have been to be the one who came up with "Trojans." It's so perfect! From the suggestion of hyper-virility, to the idea of something sheathed within an external shell, to the final penetration of a target, it's a work of marketing genius! And Summer's Eve, conjuring as it does a warm breeze carrying notes of night blossoms rather than the pre-douched funk, without ever actually mentioning that funk, is such a lovely slight of hand. So you won't blame me when I found myself admiring the marketing minds behind Fertell, a his-and-hers fertility predicting kit that hit the shelves on Monday.

The kit includes tests for both the woman and man wanting to gauge whether they're good to go, fertility-wise. For the lady, there's an "ovarian reserve test." Using the same tinkle-on-a-stick method as home pregnancy tests, this analysis detects levels of Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), which, in turn, indicate the quality and quantity of a woman's eggs. Meanwhile, the male is provided with a collection container and instructed to produce a semen sample directly into it. After production, he is to sit back for 30 minutes while it, the sample, liquifies. A layer of fluid acting as artificial cervical mucus is layered onto the semen sample and heated to body temperature.

Motile sperm swim up through the cervical mucus substitute to a point where they can be labeled through an antibody reaction and subsequently detected on a test strip. But as cool as this technology is, as refreshing as it is to have men share in the onus of reproduction (well over 40 percent of infertility is due to the male factor), this part of the kit disappointed me. I wanted the semen analysis to involve a microscopic Olympiad. I wanted there to be a steeple-chase, degraded eggs standing in for water hazards, bits of endometrial lining subbing for jumps, and only those sperm that surmounted the obstacles qualifying for additional heats.

But putting aside the punny name and the comic potential, does Fertell actually fill a health-care product need? Do people with concerns about their fertility trust an at-home product to give them sensitive data? Dr. Harry Fisch, Director of the Male Reproductive Center at Columbia University Medical Center, commented on NPR on June 4th that he is encouraged that people are starting to think not only about how to prevent a pregnancy, but how to create one. He suggested that Fertell, which retails for $100, is a good start, but that it is only one measure of overall reproductive health. He is not concerned that such tests will render doctors in his field obsolete, but that home diagnostics like Fertell give potential patients a small sliver of information that is but a piece of the overall reproductive puzzle.

But even assuming that users administer these tests absolutely according to directions, the problem is that it only measures these tricky, fluctuating systems at one precise moment in time. It could lead completely fertile people having an off day to undergo too extensive interventions. It could also reassure other, less normally fertile people that all is well, all systems go. While it is encouraging that we consumers are being empowered to look after our own health and given more tools to do so, we need to maintain our skepticism. Snazzy packaging and clever names aside, it behooves us not to gain a false sense of security, or to think that acknowledging a potential problem is the same thing as solving it. After all, even though Summer's Eve may scratch an itch, it can't cure any real, underlying problems.