BIRTHPANGS

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The Independent Culture
Infertility is fast becoming a major health concern. The statistics speak for themselves: one in six couples have difficulty conceiving, one in 10 need professional help, and more than a third of couples unable to conceive have unexplained infertility. If standard treatments fail - and IVF currently has only a 14 per cent success rate in producing a "take-home" baby - many couples will try anything in their quest for a child.

Search the Internet on infertility and there's plenty of "anything" to try. Rainforest herbs, "Libido" pills made from fertilised chicken eggs , an "energiser ring" inlaid with small zinc and copper plates which when clipped onto the base of the penis causes, "mild and steady electrical current which prolongs erection and results in larger numbers of stronger, more vigorous spermatozoa" - or so the manufacturers say.

Not to mention the world's "sexiest" hormone - Dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA - the precursor chemical of both male and female sex hormones, and the talk of the town in the US, though unlicensed in Britain. Not only does DHEA makes rats breed at double the rate, say its proponents, but it combats cancer, promotes weight loss, improves memory, reverses ageing and boosts libido, though there's no evidence that DHEA actually improves fertility as opposed to just feeling more sexy. True or not, people desperate to have a child are vulnerable to experiments whether offered by mail-order catalogue or reputable research units.

What, for example, constitutes enough proof of safety when you're dabbing in the mysteries of life? How many happy and healthy animals should be born before you try something out in humans? Should you wait for your experiments to grow up before claiming success?

Defining risks and crossing the line between experiment and accepted technique is a fine call, fraught with conflicting interests, says Juliet Tizzard, director of the Progress Educational Trust. And though professional pride might exert pressure to hurry prematurely across, patients too can turn the screw. "You've got to be very sensitive, you can't be too paternalistic yet you've also got to be very mindful not to trade on the desperation. But you've also got to allow people to understand the risks and make their own decisions too."

The trouble is anguish shrouds risk in hope.

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