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28Dec 2012

A good dose of unreality at RHRealityCheck.org.

Elizabeth Gregory

In a short essay at rhrealitycheck.org, Elizabeth Gregory, the director of Women's Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Houston, argues that new research linking older fathers to an increased risk of autism, schizophrenia, and other ailments in their children, is "not the end of the world." That's from the headline, and maybe she didn't write it. But it's vague. And if it means we shouldn't be too concerned about the risks of older fatherhood, it's premature.

Rhrealitycheck.org, which I'm not familiar with, says it is "an online community and publication serving individuals and organizations committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights," and a "resource for evidence-based information, provocative commentary, and interactive dialogue." Gregory's post, sadly, is not evidence-based. 

Gregory begins with a brief recap of the science on which she's basing her comments, which she draws from a recent article by Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic. Gregory writes, "Apparently, genetic errors may be introduced into sperm every time they divide—which is often." That is not correct. The errors that have been associated with illness in the children of older fathers are thought to occur in spermatogonia, which are sperm progenitors. Sperm do not divide

She then writes that the evidence concerning the risks of older fatherhood "is inconclusive." True, as is the case with most scientific research. But she goes on to dismiss it as just another case of "fertility scaremongering" and "catastrophizing." This, again, fails to pass a reality check: "Inconclusive" does not mean "wrong" or "meaningless."

Next, she turns to women for a bit, encouraging them to be smart about their reproductive decisions. And then she gets back to men, when she says that even if the risks of older fatherhood are confirmed, "arranging for sperm donation is a breeze." If you want "familial DNA connections," get sperm from a nephew or a younger brother. I haven't been in this situation, but I can't believe any of this "is a breeze." It must be a difficult decision for both men and women.

She talks about how advances could allow "men (and, interestingly, women too!) to generate new sperm cells bearing their DNA." Women too! Unfortunately, a sperm with a woman's DNA would probably not lead to healthy offspring. Gregory is apparently unfamiliar with the scientific literature on genetic imprinting, which shows that individuals require genes from their mothers and their fathers to thrive. And she refers to sperm division again.

If Gregory wants to make a point about the politics of reproduction, she's welcome to say whatever she likes. But if she's going to rely on the science, she should take a little time and get it right. Reality check.

-Paul Raeburn

 

 

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