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What are reproduction and fertility?

Reproduction is the way we produce babies. Knowing how your body works may help you understand how fertility problems happen.

How reproduction works

The female and male reproductive systems work together to make a baby. The process involves combining an egg (ovum) from a female and a sperm from a male. This is called fertilisation.

Role of hormones – These substances are produced naturally in the body. Hormones control many body functions, including how you grow, develop and reproduce. The pituitary gland in the brain releases hormones that tell the ovary and adrenal gland to make sex hormones.

Oestrogen and progesterone, often called female sex hormones, are produced in the ovaries. These hormones control the growth and release of eggs, and the timing of periods (menstruation).

Androgens are often called male sex hormones. The major androgen is testosterone, which is produced mainly in the testicles, but also in the male and female adrenal glands and the ovary. Most people produce some testosterone, although generally men make more. It helps the body make sperm.

Ovulation – Each month, from puberty (sexual maturation) to menopause (when periods stop), one of the ovaries releases an egg. This is called ovulation.

Pregnancy – The egg travels from the ovary into the fallopian tube. Here it can be fertilised by a sperm. Once the egg is fertilised, it implants itself into the lining of the uterus and grows into a baby. After the egg is fertilised by the sperm, it’s called an embryo.

Menopause – As females get older, hormone levels fall to a level where the ovaries stop releasing eggs and periods stop. This is known as menopause. This is the natural end of the female reproductive years and it usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55.

Factors that affect fertility

Some of the common factors that affect fertility include:

  • age – fertility starts to naturally decrease with age
  • weight – being very underweight or overweight
  • smoking – both active and second-hand smoking can harm reproductive health
  • alcohol – drinking too much alcohol may make it harder to conceive
  • other health concerns – endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic disease, certain hormonal conditions or cancer.

Female sex organs and reproduction


  • two small, walnut-shaped organs in the lower part of the abdomen
  • contain follicles that hold immature eggs (ova), which eventually become mature eggs
  • make hormones including oestrogen and progesterone fallopian tubes

fallopian tubes

  • two long, thin tubes that extend from the uterus and open near the ovaries
  • carry sperm to the eggs, and eggs from the ovaries to the uterus

uterus (womb)

  • a hollow muscular organ where a fertilised egg (ovum) is nourished to develop into a baby
  • the inner lining of the uterus is known as the endometrium; each month if an egg is not fertilised, some of the lining is shed and flows out of the body  (menstruation or monthly period)
  • joined to the vagina by the cervix

cervix (neck of the uterus)

  • the lower, cylinder-shaped entrance to the uterus
  • produces moisture to lubricate the vagina
  • holds a developing baby in the uterus during pregnancy and widens during childbirth vagina (birth canal)

Vagina (birth canal)

  • a muscular sheath or canal that extends from the opening of the uterus (the cervix) to the vulva
  • the passageway through which menstrual blood flows out of the body, penetrative sex (such as intercourse) occurs and a baby is born


  • the external sex organs; includes the labia

Male sex organs and reproduction

testicles (testes)

  • two small, egg-shaped glands
  • make and store sperm
  • also make the hormone testosterone, which is responsible for the development of male characteristics, sexual drive (libido) and the ability to have an erection


  • the loose pouch of skin at the base of the penis that holds the testicles


  • a tightly coiled tube attached to the outer surface of each testicle
  • sperm travel from the testicles through the epididymis to the spermatic cord

spermatic cord and vas deferens

  • tube running from each testicle to the penis
  • contains blood vessels, nerves and lymph vessels
  • carries sperm towards the penis

seminal vesicles

  • a pair of glands that lie close to the prostate
  • produce fluids that make up part of semen


  • a small gland about the size of a walnut
  • produces fluids that form part of semen
  • located near the nerves, blood vessels and muscles that control bladder function and erections


  • the main external sex organ
  • urine and semen pass out of the body through the penis
  • semen is made up of sperm and other fluids, and is ejaculated from the penis
Transgender, non-binary or intersex?

This information has been developed based on evidence in people born female or male.

If you are non-binary or a trans person or person with an intersex variation, this information may still be relevant to you if you have ovaries, a cervix and a uterus, or testicles and a penis. For information specific to you, talk to your doctor.

Call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to ask for information about the specific cancer needs of LGBTQI+ people.

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Fertility and Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed October 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Martha Hickey, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, The University of Melbourne and Director, Gynaecology Research Centre, The Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sally Baron-Hay, Medical Oncologist, Royal North Shore Hospital and Northern Cancer Institute, NSW; Anita Cox, Cancer Nurse Specialist and Youth Cancer Clinical Nurse Consultant, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Kate Cox, McGrath Breast Health Nurse Consultant, Gawler/ Barossa Region, SA; Jade Harkin, Consumer; A/Prof Yasmin Jayasinghe, Director Oncofertility Program, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Chair, Australian New Zealand Consortium in Paediatric and Adolescent Oncofertility, Senior Research Fellow, The Royal Women’s Hospital and The University Of Melbourne, VIC; Melissa Jones, Nurse Consultant, Youth Cancer Service SA/NT, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Dr Shanna Logan, Clinical Psychologist, The Hummingbird Centre, Newcastle West, NSW; Stephen Page, Family Law Accredited Specialist and Director, Page Provan, QLD; Dr Michelle Peate, Program Leader, Psychosocial Health and Wellbeing Research (emPoWeR) Unit, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, The Royal Women’s Hospital and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Pampa Ray, Consumer; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, and Chief Investigator, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Prof Beverley Vollenhoven AM, Carl Wood Chair, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Monash University and Director, Gynaecology and Research, Women’s and Newborn, Monash Health and Monash IVF, VIC; Lesley Woods, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.

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