In the human female reproductive system, ova are produced in the ovaries, two small organs set in the pelvic cavity below and to either side of the navel. The ovaries also secrete, in cyclic fashion, the hormones estrogen and progesterone (see menstruation). After an ovum matures, it passes into the uterine tube, or fallopian tube. If sperm are present as a result of sexual intercourse or artificial insemination, fertilization occurs within the tube. The ovum, either fertilized or unfertilized, then passes down the fallopian tube, aided by cilia in the tube, and into the womb, or uterus, a pear-shaped organ specialized for development of a fertilized egg.
An inner uterine layer of tissue, the endometrium, undergoes cyclic changes as a result of the changing levels of the hormones secreted by the ovaries. The endometrium is thickest during the part of the menstrual cycle in which a fertilized ovum would be expected to enter the uterus and is thinnest just after menstruation. If no fertilized egg is present toward the end of the cycle, the thickened endometrium degenerates and sloughs off and menstruation occurs; if a fertilized egg is present it becomes embedded in the endometrium about a week after fertilization. The developing embryo produces trophoblastic cells and these, along with cells from the endometrium, form the placenta, the organ in which gas, food, and waste exchange between mother and embryo takes place. The embryo also forms the amniotic sac within which it develops.
The lower end of the uterus is called the cervix. The vagina, a passage connecting the uterus with the external genitals, receives the penis and the sperm ejaculated from it during sexual intercourse. It also serves as an exit passageway for menstrual blood and for the baby during birth. The external genitals, or vulva, include the clitoris, erectile tissue that responds to sexual stimulation, and the labia, which are composed of elongated folds of skin. After birth the infant is fed with milk from the breasts, or mammary glands, which are also sometimes considered part of the reproductive system.
In the male reproductive system sperm are produced in the seminiferous tubules of the testes, two organs contained in the scrotum, an external sac in the groin. The testes also produce the male hormone testosterone and a portion of the seminal fluid, the liquid in which sperm are carried. The external location of the scrotum ensures the relatively low temperature that is necessary for the normal development of sperm. After formation, the sperm pass from the testes into the tubular epididymis, and from there into another passage, the vas deferens. The seminal vesicle, which produces nutrient seminal fluid, and the prostate gland, which produces alkaline prostatic fluid, are both connected to the ejaculatory duct leading into the urethra.
The first stage of the male sexual act, erection, results from nerve impulses from the autonomic nervous system that dilate the arteries of the penis, thus allowing arterial blood to flow into erectile tissues of the organ. During intercourse, contractions in the ducts of the testes, epididymis, and ductus deferens cause expulsion of sperm into the urethra and their mixture with the seminal and prostatic fluids. These substances, together with mucus secreted by accessory glands known as Cowper's glands, form the semen, which is discharged from the penile urethra during ejaculation.
Disorders that may affect the proper functioning of the reproductive system include abnormal hormone secretion, sexually transmitted diseases, and the presence of cancerous tissue in the region. Such problems frequently affect fertility and may complicate pregnancy.
The female reproductive system contains two main parts: the uterus, which act as the receptacle for the male's sperm, and the ovaries, which produce the female's egg cells. These parts are internal; the vagina meets the external organs at the vulva, which includes the labia, clitoris and urethra. The vagina is attached to the uterus through the cervix, while the uterus is attached to the ovaries via the Fallopian tubes. At certain intervals, the ovaries release an ovum, which passes through the Fallopian tube into the uterus.
If, in this transit, it meets with sperm, the sperm penetrate and merge with the egg, fertilizing it. The fertilization usually occurs in the oviducts, but can happen in the uterus itself. The zygote then implants itself in the wall of the uterus, where it begins the processes of embryogenesis and morphogenesis. When developed enough to survive outside the womb, the cervix dilates and contractions of the uterus propel the fetus through the birth canal, which is the vagina.
The ova are larger than sperm and are generally all created by birth. Approximately every month, a process of oogenesis matures one ovum to be sent down the Fallopian tube attached to its ovary in anticipation of fertilization. If not fertilized, this egg is flushed out of the system through menstruation.
The vagina is a fibromuscular tubular tract leading from the uterus to the exterior of the body in female mammals, or to the cloaca in female birds and some reptiles. Female insects and other invertebrates also have a vagina, which is the terminal part of the oviduct.
The cervix is the lower, narrow portion of the uterus where it joins with the top end of the vagina. It is cylindrical or conical in shape and protrudes through the upper anterior vaginal wall. Approximately half its length is visible; the remainder lies above the vagina beyond view.
The uterus is a pear-shaped muscular organ. Its major function is to accept a fertilized ovum which becomes implanted into the endometrium, and derives nourishment from blood vessels which develop exclusively for this purpose. The fertilized ovum becomes an embryo, develops into a fetus and gestates until childbirth. If the egg does not embed in the wall of the uterus, a woman gets her period and the egg is flushed away.
On maturity of an ovum, the follicle and the ovary's wall rupture, allowing the ovum to escape and enter the Fallopian tube. There it travels toward the uterus, pushed along by movements of cilia on the inner lining of the tubes. This trip takes hours or days. If the ovum is fertilized while in the Fallopian tube, then it normally implants in the endometrium when it reaches the uterus, which signals the beginning of pregnancy.
The ovaries are the place inside the female body where ova or eggs are produced. The process by which the ovum is released is called ovulation. The speed of ovulation is periodic and impacts directly to the length of a menstrual cycle.
After ovulation, the ovum is captured by the oviduct, after traveling down the oviduct to the uterus, occasionally being fertilized on its way by an incoming sperm, leading to pregnancy and the eventual birth of a new human being.