Interview with author Benedikt Schwan
Benedikt Schwan learns at the age of 41 that he is infertile. Instead of drowning in his grief, he chooses a different path. The journalist begins to research — about male fertility, and about how society deals with a taboo subject. He interviews doctors and fellow sufferers around the world and, along the way, comes to terms with his own personal experience with the diagnosis. The result is a book that takes an open and honest approach to the rather hushed-up, yet essential topic of male sterility: “Ohnekind”. We asked Benedikt Schwan some questions and received clear answers.
Mr Schwan, first of all, thank you — for your openness and the courage to address a taboo subject in our society: Male sterility.
“You’re welcome — I wrote my book “Ohnekind” for myself, so the courage came naturally. I had this perhaps somewhat crazy idea to write about my own suffering and get it off my chest, but at the same time to help and somehow support others affected who have not yet had a voice. There are so many out there. I hope I have succeeded in that, at least in a little bit.”
On the very first page, you take us readers with you to your sperm test appointment. You describe your treatments leading up to your own diagnosis of “infertile and unable to conceive”. Throughout your journey you share your own and your wife’s personal thoughts, with all the doubts and fears that infertility brings with it. To what extent was the writing process a catharsis for you?
“I believe that the problems will probably never go away, they are constantly present in the back of my mind. In the beginning, I was faced with the question of what I actually had in the first place, what was going on with my body and why I of all people was affected ? I wanted — also because I am a journalist and curiosity is part of my job — to find out as much as possible about infertility. I thought that that would help me receive help somehow. At the same time, I was able to push the topic away from myself and “professionalise” the way I dealt with it. That reduced the pain a little. So I would say that writing was a cathartic process. I learned a lot about myself and others affected in the process.”
“Azoospermia is your diagnosis and you describe how you approach the term in “Ohnekind”. You researched in forums and self-help groups — and found out that men rarely talk openly about it. Why do you think male infertility is such a taboo subject for men?”
“I still wonder about that. I think it’s because it goes to the core of masculinity. There’s a feeling of not functioning properly, of not being able to fulfil their job given to them by nature. Building a house, planting a tree, fathering a child.… It takes it out of you when you can’t do one thing. Many also wonder what women think of them now. Do they still take me seriously? All of this is very painful. That’s why people prefer to suppress it. More and more men are affected, and there is no need to be ashamed of it, because in the rarest of cases there is nothing you can do about it!
Some people confuse infertility with impotence, but they have nothing to do with each other. Azoospermia, as in my case, simply means that there are no sperm cells in the ejaculate that could fertilise an egg cell in the woman. Sex is completely normal and the seminal fluid also looks the same.”
But in fact, according to studies,male sterility rising in our society. Why is this so?
“Since the seventies, the sperm concentration in the ejaculate of men in western industrialised countries is said to have roughly halved. That doesn’t mean that they are all incapable of procreation, but of course it doesn’t make procreation any easier. Accordingly, there are more and more problems to conceive children and the fertility centres are full. They say that in at least half of the cases, the man is involved and at fault if fertilisation does not occur.”
There is a lot of research on the reasons for this, but the field is unfortunately still totally neglected. Accordingly, there are only assumptions — the chemical revolution, for example, the many plastics, some of which have an effect on hormones, from stress in society to the mobile phone radiation, which could both have an influence. But we don’t really know. What surprised me most was how acute and widespread the problem is. This is what encouraged me to write about the topic it and get involved — and it also makes readers feel a little less alone.”
For “Ohnekind” you go beyond the personal level. You interview fellow sufferers, a Mormon fundamentalist in Canada with 150 children and you visited scientists around the world contemplating what other countries like Norway do better than us. Why was it important for you to take such a broad view of the reproduction/family issue?
“In my personal history, being a father was something I put off for a very long time. My wife and I were in our mid-30s when we seriously tried to become parents. I then asked myself why we put it off for so long and why so many other people do the same.
Why do so many seem to be so afraid of having children? What are we socially doing wrong, why are we endangering the future of our community by doing this, because without children we can’t go on? Then there was the question of the image of fathers, which has changed a lot in recent years. And I just wanted to see what I could learn from others about the subject.
In addition, there were the scientific and medical aspects of male infertility, which I simply wanted to understand. I also experimented a bit on myself, for example with a sperm self-testing-kit.”
You impressively describe how women get the short end of the stick when it comes to symptoms and studies in general medicine. In contrast, however, the science of reproductive medicine is almost exclusively focused on women. Surely early diagnosis in men would be desirable. What needs to change here?
“It’s a very strange story. Whether it’s cancer, heart attacks or intestinal diseases — for years medicine assumed the man as the standard model. In reproductive medicine and fertility treatment, on the other hand, we focus almost exclusively on women, who have to go through all the invasive procedures, the harsh hormone treatment and much more. Men often don’t get their sperm tested until it’s long too late. Since there is no longer compulsory military service, no one regularly looks at their privates any more, the last inspection was usually done by the paediatrician, so possible diseases are not detected. I think that on the one hand men don’t like to go to the doctor, on the other hand there is simply more financial resources within the womens reproductive medicine. Forgive me if I’m a little cynical. Couples who go through it really don’t have it easy.”
What can politics do to ensure the long-term existence of our species?
“It should first recognise the problem as a problem. The leading parties have now started to decide to put more money back into reproductive medicine, to fund more research. In 2003, politicians decided to finance three fertility cycles but still then only half. Since then, people have gone into debt in the tens of thousands. In my opinion, this is completely insane. The state should do everything to make it easier for people to have children. That starts with the medical side, but it doesn’t end with family-friendly employers, well-functioning day-care centres and a general appreciation of parents.
Unfortunately, immigration alone is not enough to maintain our community, especially since we are “stealing” people from other countries. Currently, we still talk a lot about overpopulation. I predict that this will change soon, because infertility is becoming more of a problem worldwide.”
From today’s perspective, what advice would you give to men who still wish to have children? When do you think men should address the issue of fertility and the desire to have children?
“As early as possible. I advocate that a sperm test should be done at the onset of puberty. Just as women have their gynaecologist, we need a “men’s doctor” for men. Parents should pay explicit attention to the issue of infertility in their sons. There are infertility diseases like Klinefelter’s syndrome, where something can still be saved if it is detected in time. But we are not at all doing anything regarding the topic, men only come to the doctor when they have the acute problem. There is no prevention!
I also think it is important that it is socially accepted that men want to have children of their own accord. They don’t just come to it when their wife’s biological clock is ticking. Having a child is ingrained in almost all of us, whether male, female, trans or non-binary. That’s why the loss through infertility is so hard.”
In “Ohnekind” you share with us your thoughts about having an M‑TESE done in order to start a family after all. In the end, however, you decide against it. Hand on heart: Did you regret not having had your sperm tested earlier and frozen if necessary?
“We decided against it mainly because we were too old. I didn’t want to put my wife through this incredibly hard process of fertility treatments in her forties, especially since the chances also decrease greatly with age. So quite honestly: I extremely regretted not having dealt with the issue earlier.
I still don’t know why I am unable to procreate. I am therefore trying to help research and I am part of a gene panel that is looking for markers of infertility. So far, there has been no hint here. Nobody knows when I became infertile, whether it is congenital or came later. And this is the case for almost all those affected! Accordingly, I would urge all young men to look into the issue. Have a sperm test conducted as soon as possible, then you will know! Even if you don’t want to have children yet. That will come soon enough!”
About Benedikt Schwan:
Benedikt Schwan has been a journalist for over 20 years, specialising in technology, science and research. His texts have appeared in “Zeit Online”, “Focus” and “Spiegel Online”, among others. Schwan is married and lives in Berlin. “Ohnekind” is his first book and was published by heyne Verlag in 2020.
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