I posted earlier on the late-August study adding new evidence to the link between older fathers and autism and other ailments, and Deborah Blum posted on a story looking at the implications for the human gene pool. But there is, I think, one more thing to say about the coverage.
The study received wide attention, even though this link has been clear for years. Most of the coverage missed what was new about this study, which did indeed add significant evidence to what had already been known. But something very important was largely missed. And I count that as a general failure of the press.
Much of the coverage was simply silly, amounting to this: OK, men, now you have to worry about your biological clocks, too! Lisa Belkin, the able and respected parenting columnist at The Huffington Post, led her story with this: "Do men have a biological clock? Should they be haunted by its tick, as women have long been? Should they at least be aware that it exists?"
Robert McCartney, a columnist at The Washington Post, wrote that the Internet "lit up" with the news:
A common theme in e-mails and Web postings was: “Look, LOOK, the father is to blame, too, if we wait too long and something goes wrong!” We men can hardly fault women for such self-righteous satisfaction. Females experience relentless, unforgiving pressure to have children early.
KJ Dell'Antonio, who replaced Belkin as author of the Motherlode blog at The New York Times, took a shot at fathers who blog. "Every health blog, every Web site, every major news organization, covered this study (published online in the journal Nature and reported in The Times and everywhere else), as I wrote for the Sunday Styles section. But few “daddy bloggers” mentioned it at all."
That Sunday Styles piece ran under the online headline "The Clock Ticks for Men as Well," and began with "Let the baton of blame pass to the next runner."
Now, here is what all these folks trying to redress past grievances missed: The evidence linking older fathers to severe illnesses in children could one day point to a way to prevent those illnesses. While so many in the press were worrying about biological clocks, few were thinking about sick kids. The illnesses associated with older fathers include not only autism, but schizophrenia, and a wide range of other ailments: an increased risk of birth defects, cleft lip and palate, water on the brain, dwarfism, miscarriage and "decreased intellectual capacity."
Yes, it's important that we understand women's and men's contributions to their children's risks and well-being. Yes, women have unfairly shouldered the blame for waiting too long to have children. But at least some of the coverage might have focused on the children, who certainly bear no share of the blame at all.
- Paul Raeburn