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.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.