As I discussed in a previous blog,
the blame for fetal harm is generally directed at women. Some of my colleagues
and I, including AMBI faculty member Zubin Master, were interested in examining
how fetal harm, and more specifically age-related preconception harm, is
portrayed in the media. Our
findings were published earlier this year in the American Journal of Bioethics Empirical Bioethics.
Given the significant social change
that many people today are delaying childbearing in comparison to previous
generations, it is relevant to examine the media portrayal of older parental
age and risk to future offspring. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that
older parental age carries certain risks to offspring: older age in women and
men leads to an increased risk of having children with autism and Down syndrome
and older paternal age has also been linked to higher rates of children with
schizophrenia. Many people get most of their scientific news from the media, so
it is important to examine the accuracy and biases of the information.
Our results indicate that
reproduction is still largely seen as the domain of women, rather than of
couples or of men. We rarely found articles discussing reproduction as it
relates to both women and men as the majority of articles were maternally
focused. Even among the articles that were paternally focused, they almost
always discussed maternal harm as well. However, the reverse – maternally
focused articles containing discussions of paternal harm – were almost
nonexistent. This pattern suggests that men alone are never seen as solely
responsible for fetal harms, but rather that this responsibility is always
shared with women.
Responsibility and blame typically
go hand-in-hand and not surprisingly articles were four times more likely to
blame women for fetal harms than men. The infrequency of paternal blame suggests
that authors either do not recognize men’s contribution to harm due to
ignorance or denial, or do not want to hold men responsible for harm. Even when
men’s contribution to harm was acknowledged, the authors were more likely to
absolve men from responsibility for harm by presenting reassuring information,
such as the overall risk of fetal harm is quite low, in conjunction with
factual information stating that older paternal age can increase risks to
future children. The same sort of reassurance was not seen for women.
Although reproductive blame and
responsibility is still typically assigned to women, newspapers are
increasingly discussing the relationship between paternal age and preconception
harm: no articles discussed this relationship in the 1970s or 1980s, 20%
discussed it in the 1990s, and nearly 40% discussed it between 2000 and 2012.
The increase in articles on paternal harm in the 2000s may be due to the
increase in scientific data showing the connection between paternal age and
harm, the growing body of social science literature on male reproduction, the rising
medicalization of men’s sexuality and reproduction, as well as changes in
social norms that make discussions of paternal role and responsibility in
reproduction more commonplace.
However, despite the fact that
newspapers are actually acknowledging and discussing paternal age and
preconception harm, the primary focus of newspaper articles regarding
preconception harm remains concentrated on women and articles are more likely
to blame women than men for any harm. In short, our analysis of age-related
preconception harm reflects the broader gendered social patterns regarding
reproduction that tend to minimize, and even ignore, men’s role in and
responsibility for reproduction.
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.