Very many prescription drugs will affect the reproductive system. If you are taking any of these, you will need to discuss with your doctor what effect they are likely to have on your fertility, how to minimize these side-effects, and whether it is worth stopping treatment with some drug in order to improve your fertility. Drugs known to affect fertility include:
Tranquilizers Antibiotics (possibly) Cortisone Treatments for the common cold
The Thalidomide and DES scandals
Prescription drugs, too, can have side-effects which impact on fertility and reproduction. In a couple of cases, these have emerged in dramatic public health scandals, such as that surrounding thalidomide. In the early 1960s, thousands of pregnant women were prescribed a drug called thalidomide, as a tranquilizer. When they gave birth, it was to babies with terrible deformities: lacking arms or legs, some with hands growing directly from their shoulders, others blind, deaf, or brain-damaged.
Other drugs can cause side-effects at a greater remove. Drugs taken by a pregnant mother can affect the fertility of her children an effect that might not become obvious for another twenty years. The classic case of this is DES, a drug which, ironically, was prescribed for infertility.
It didn’t have significant side-effects in the mother, and it was many years before doctors realized that it had dramatically affected the children of mothers who took DES during pregnancy. Some suffered from a very rare cancer of the vagina, others have been left with severe deformities of the uterus. Male “DES children” have escaped more lightly, but they too suffer higher rates of abnormal sperm, undescended testicles and stunted penises.
Tragic episodes like those with DES and Thalidomide are rare, but unfortunately they are almost an inevitable outcome of the progress of medical science. Despite the ever-increasing battery of tests to which every new drug is subjected, it remains impossible to know everything that a drug does to the human body. Laboratory tests usually only find what they’re looking for, and animal tests will never find situations where the human and the animal cases differ.
Drugs taken during pregnancy
Drugs taken during pregnancy pose a particular problem to the chances of a successful birth. For many decades, the placenta was believed to shield the fetus from most of the substances in the mother’s bloodstream, protecting it from the effects of drugs. This belief collapsed in the 1960s, and since then we have found dozens of chemicals which can cross the placenta to affect an unborn baby, perhaps causing birth defects or miscarriage.
What’s worse, it takes a much smaller dose to affect a fetus than it would to affect an adult. Almost unmeasurably small doses of some chemicals doses which must be counted in parts per trillion can destroy the health of a fetus.
Don’t take this as an argument to avoid doctors! The tragedies are massively outnumbered by the positive miracles wrought in hospitals, and people lose far more than they gain when they shun medicine from fear of what happens when it goes wrong.