Controversial new research from Harvard University's School of Public Health has found that autism rates among children whose mothers had been treated with ovulation-inducing drugs prior to pregnancy may be nearly twice as high as autism rates among children born to mothers who did not suffer from infertility. The findings, presented May 19, 2010, before a meeting of the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia, was based on a survey of 111 women taking part in the Nurses' Health Study II who had a child with an autism spectrum disorder.
Researchers asked women about their history of fertility problems and use of ovulation-inducing medicines. According to an ABC News report on the study, about 34 percent of moms with an autistic child had used fertility drugs compared to about 24 percent of a comparison group of 3,900 mothers without an autistic child. Nearly 47 percent of moms of autistic kids reported infertility, compared to about 33 percent of the other mothers. And, notes researchers, the longer women reported being treated for infertility the higher the chances were that their child had an autism spectrum disorder.
As ABC News reports, health experts urge caution before drawing conclusions about fertility drugs and autism because the details of the study have not yet been published. Other critics note that data used in the study was based on responses from women, not clinical records, so there is no way to confirm the history or timing of treatment for infertility or a diagnosis for autism. And as one pediatrics expert told ABC, there could be alternate explanations to consider—factors such as damaged eggs or other environmental causes for infertility that could play a role in the number of autism cases among women treated for their infertility.
Still, "This study adds to a growing body of findings suggesting that reproductive assistive technologies are associated with increased risk for less optimal outcomes in babies," says Geraldine Dawson, chief scientific officer of Autism Speaks, told ABC News. "The risk, however, is still relatively small and this should be reassuring to women who are using these drugs."