A new home fertility test is the biological equivalent of a cold shower



The harbinger of

my reproductive future sits on the desk, a flashing orange light counting down the minutes until it comes up with the answer to some of the more terrifying questions in life: Can you make it happen? Can your boys really swim? Are you man enough?

To be honest, though, it’s hard to take the thing seriously. With its bright, oversized dials and flashing light, the male portion of the home fertility test soon to be available in Canada looks like a toy—an egg timer designed by Fisher-Price, something you might plunk in the lap of a whining toddler to shut him up.

But the Fertell Female and Male Fertility Tests are a serious matter, particularly for any couple intending, sooner or later, to make babies. For the first time, they can forgo the


doctor’s office and all its associated costs and embarrassment, go to the drugstore, and for about $115 to $150 (the price isn’t set yet) get an idea of their reproductive future in just over an hour. It will be available in the U.S. later this year, and in Canada in 2007

Wrapped in a box decorated with a gigantic sperm swimming into a soothing, pastelcoloured egg, the Fertell test is the biological equivalent of a cold shower: it’s a reminder for the perpetual fence-sitters out there that men and women alike are hard-wired to further the species. It also raises a couple of less-than-ideal scenarios: for the newly involved, the test could be used as a pre-coital evaluation for the woman to find out if you really do have a future together. The second, more likely, scenario is for the well-entrenched, supposedly stable relationship: what if one person happens to fail?

Developed by British fertility tech firm Genosis, the Fertell test has been available in Britain since the beginning of the year. (It is sold without a prescription in the Boots pharmacy chain.) According to research, the kit is about 95 per cent accurate. “It isn’t a total substitute for a physician,” says Genosis U.S. president Robert Thompson. “It’s not meant to be used in lieu of medical testing. But as a first step, it is a lot more convenient and less stressful because you can do it yourself.”

None of the Canadian specialists contacted by Maclean’s had heard of the Fertell tests. “It isn’t on our radar at all,” said a spokesman from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. The doctors, meanwhile, remained altogether incredulous of the concept of at-home fertility testing. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Dr. Tim Rowe, head of UBC’s reproductive endocrinology and infertility division. “There’s a certain amount of privacy that people would like, but I think this makes it too easy. I wish it were that simple. You aren’t looking at all the causes of infertility, like the shape of the sperm and the presence or absence of antibodies, which can reduce the fertilization ability. You also don’t account for human behaviour.” Moreover, medicare covers in-lab fertility tests, making the cost all the more absurd, Rowe says.

Thompson says physicians are right to be skeptical—“there’s a lot of crap put out there”—


but notes the male device was written up in Human Reproduction, Oxford University’s wellregarded journal of reproductive sciences. The article pointed out the value of privacy : producing a semen sample in a doctor’s office can be an embarrassing, humiliating and sometimes futile experience. “We identify some major contributors to infertility, and you can feel a lot better about conceiving if you pass the Fertell tests,” says Thompson.

The box includes the male test and a dipstick-like wand for women. The woman has it easy: on the third day of her cycle, she pees on the stick and waits half an hour. It measures the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSFI), which is an indicator of ovarian reserve. The FSH measure is commonly used in menopausal tests, though Fertell is the first to be calibrated for fertility, according to Thompson. If a single red line—or a second lighter line—appears, all is swell. A darker second line means... well, as they say, consult your physician.

The kit comes with a feel-good “what if” pamphlet meant to help couples distressed by a bad result. “You may be feeling many mixed emotions and need some immediate

impartial advice and support,” it reads, and includes a toll-free number to an infertility helpline. (The North American kits will have a similar number, Thompson said.)

My girlfriend did the test while I slept, shaking me awake with the news. “I’m extremely fertile, by the way,” she said. Then she went off to work. My testing device sat on the bedside table, and I began to think: we’re about to get intimate. Should I throw on Barry White and dim the lights? Sealed in a plastic bag, it’s roughly the size of a Granny Smith apple, with a hollowed out “well” where the sample collects. The top, which snaps on once the deposit is made, has an outsized blue button and orange dial. Potentially emasculating problem number one: “If you normally produce less than the I amount required to fill the well jp. in one ejaculation, you should M# consult a doctor.” Yippee. There are six detailed steps to follow thereafter, and one


slip-up voids the test results. After 30 minutes, I push the blue button and a light turns on, indicating that the innocuous white container was heating up the artificial cervical mucous contained inside. Half an hour later, I turn the orange dial counter-clockwise, which sends sperm through the equivalent of the birth canal and into the testing chamber, where Genosis’ patented technology determines my number of motile sperm.

The next 15 minutes are the longest, and counted off by the slow, constant blink of the orange light. It’s like waiting for the proverbial surgeon to burst through the door, mask askew, to tell me about the rest of my life. “To say that a negative test result could cause friction in a couple is absolutely accurate,” says Thompson. “Then again, if you’ve been trying for a number of months, chances are that friction exists already.”

There’s no friction here. Babies, like minivans and second mortgages, are a long, long way off—if they are there at all. They’re cute and all, but so are pandas. It doesn’t mean I’d want one running around the house. When the light stops flashing, it’s time to turn the orange dial clockwise and view the results. A single red line is bad news. A second red line, no matter how faint, means I’ve passed.

There is no question. All is good. My boys can swim. But there is no epiphany, no kneebending bliss. The idea of a baby is about as foreign as it was an hour ago. There’s only the comforting notion that both of us are that much more compatible. And to paraphrase Dr. Rowe, it really isn’t that simple. M