We now know, without a shred of doubt, that a man's age and the quality of his sperm have significant impact on pregnancy outcomes and on the lives of his offspring. Of course, you have to be actively engaged in the modern world to understand this. The radically retrogressive reproductive dictates of the Republican party insist that society be involved in every fetus's health and wellbeing in ways that punish pregnant women with arrest and imprisonment. Given what we know about sperm and how conservatives are policing potentially malicious parental intent shouldn't personhood-happy legislators and executive office wannabees be penalizing men older than 35 who have unprotected sex?
Women have long been subjected to excessive societal pressure to sublimate their own needs, bodies and behaviors and to sacrifice them to those of developing fetuses. But, slippery slopes are slippery. Women have long been tethered to whatever vehicle happens to be sliding willy-nilly, so to speak, down the hill. Apparently, the time has come to tether the men too the sled.
I know this argument will strike many people as absurd. How dare I suggest that society infringe on men's private choices about their bodies, their behaviors and their reproductive choices. What on earth am I thinking? Well, turns out that I'm thinking about girls and women and their lives. Unlike this benighted Ohio legislator whose arrogance takes conservative male entitlement and lack of empathy to new and unscaled heights.
My moderate Republican friends display a disturbingly high tolerance for men like this and a penchant for sticking with the party line that the status of women's reproductive rights has nothing to do with jobs or with, say, national security. But, they also seem to either not know what is going on, don't care, think they'll be the exception to the rule, or don't believe that ignorant legislators, you know -- the ones spewing incoherent and woman-demeaning blather about rape and pregnancy and cows and pigs in state after state, are the norm and not the fringe exception.
As the New York Times first reported in 1991, last month, and again this weekend in a piece called Why Fathers Really Matter, "Bad Daddy" sperm hurts developing fetuses and has lifelong health impacts on offspring.
Whereas in 1991 scientists understood that men's exposure to toxins affected their sperm and fetal development now they understand something much more profound. Namely, scientists are focused on epigenetics and the inheritance of sperm. Epigenetics refers to how and why genes express themselves, essentially how they get switched on and off. In addition, because of the way that sperm is produced it is much more likely than a woman's egg to include mutations resulting in lifelong problems for the products of said sperm. Stress, trauma, toxic exposure, compromised nutrition and more all affect sperm and all can be manifested as inheritable aspects. Even emotional distress experienced by men is expressed as an inheritable characteristic in his offspring.
According to a multi-generational study of more than 1,000,000 people in Sweden the children of men who are older than 50 are more than twice as likely to be autistic. They also have a greater propensity to suffer from inherited bi-polar disorder and to be schizophrenic. After the man is 55 the likelihood of autism increases to 4.4 times.
Dr. Kari Stefansson, the senior author of one of the studies referenced in the New York Times article explained his findings this way, "When it comes to some complex developmental and psychiatric problems, the lion's share of the genetic risk originates in the sperm... It is absolutely stunning that the father's age accounted for all this added risk..."
Now, consider this information in the context of the GOP's systematic attempts to dismantle women's rights during the past two years. It is interesting to apply their proposed bills and laws to men and their sperm. (And, I'm not joking.)
Last year, in a bid to defund planned parenthood and eliminate abortion and health care access for millions of low income women in the state of Indiana, Republican Rep. Mike Pence argued that it is "morally wrong to take the tax dollars of millions of pro-life Americans and use them to fund organizations that provide and promote abortions." Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what the costs to society are if we allow men to continue to procreate after 35.
A 2002 study, The Economic Burden of Schizophrenia in the United States, estimated the costs of this debilitating illness to be "$62.7 billion, with $22.7 billion excess direct health care cost ($7.0 billion outpatient, $5.0 billion drugs, $2.8 billion inpatient, $8.0 billion long-term care)."
In a 2006 Michael Gantz, of the Harvard School of Public Health and author of the book Understanding Autism: From Basic Neuroscience to Treatment (CRC Press, 2006) estimated that "$35 billion annual societal cost for caring for and treating people with autism likely underestimates the true costs."
Men over 35 having unprotected sex resulting in pregnancy significantly increase these costs. Is it morally wrong to take the tax dollars of millions of pro-life Americans and use them to fund organizations through tax breaks and religious exceptions that provide support for men who use Viagra and procreate after 35? Or, instead, are we all supposed to pay in obscene "disabled children are punishment for sins" manner espoused in 2010 by yet another "sorry I misspoke" Republican state legislator?
It's also not just that there is an increased risk of illnesses like bi-polar disorders, critical genetically-borne abnormalities, autism and schizophrenia. Pregnancies resulting from sperm of men older than 35 are significantly more likely to result in spontaneous termination of pregnacies. The Wall Street Journal, in a move sure to scare the lights out of its core readership, reported that the rate of miscarriage more than doubled for men over 30 and increased by 75% for men over 40. A longitudinal study of nearly 14,000 women "found that the risk of miscarriage to expectant mothers was 60 per cent higher when the father was aged 40 or over compared to when he was 25-29 years old."
If a man over 35 has unprotected sex that results in a pregnancy with a much higher chance of spontaneous miscarriage, should society question his intent like Iowa did Christine Taylor's when she slipped down her stairs and was arrested, investigated and imprisoned for attempted feticide?
Well, what about criminalizing harmful insemination with malice of forethought? Or, forcibly stopping older men from reproducing? South Dakota's 2011 House Bill 1171 proposed making homicide justifiable if the person committing it does so to stop any attempted harm to an unborn fetus. Of course, the eugenics implications are ugly but inevitable. How do we define "harm"? Is "harm" death? Is it an inevitable, debilitating illness? Psychotic break?
Rep. Bobby Franklin, a Republican state legislator in Georgia proposed a bill earlier this year that would would make all abortions, described as "prenatal murder," illegal and would make it necessary for women to prove that their miscarriages were entirely "natural" and did not include "any human involvement whatsoever." "Anyone," meaning 'ANYWOMAN," convicted would face the death penalty or life behind bars by the terms of his bill. What if that human involvement was sex with a 55 year old man? A woman in Georgia better think seriously hard about prison fashion before having sex with an older man. He's been proposing this bill every years for the past ten years. It probably won't pass, again. It will however push the line on what is acceptable further and further to the right so that women are made to feel grateful that they have access to simple things like birth control and are willing to compromise on abortion -- something, lest we forget, we fought hard and long for the safe and legal right to.
Miscarriage, autism, schizophrenia and more are what conservative personhood-crazy legislators call "bad pregnancy outcomes." According to "pro-life" personhood logic (oxymoronic to be sure), fetuses die because these older men selfishly have sex without thinking of the consequences of their actions. This is why they are punishing women for all over the country. Otherwise, we wouldn't have an overworked National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
I keep expecting people to think. Republican legislators around the country have been very clear on these issues. Harm is harm. Personal responsibility is personal responsibility. Intent is theirs to investigate. Punishment is a consequence of irresponsible choices. The illogical, philosophically, scientifically and bioethically spurious personhood agenda leads to this conclusion: men over 35 should not be having children. So, will conservative legislators, at least 87% if whom are men, most over 35, turn on themselves to legislate against fetal harm?
Creative faith-based rationales for sperm's divinity and "God's Sexist Plan" will only reveal more bluntly why concerns about fetal harm and development and costs to society are irrelevant, except when we can pin them women -- the poorer and darker the better -- in need of assistance. That's why this has nothing to do with "life" and everything to do with controlling birth and the women whose bodies are actually, if bothersomely and sinfully, involved. Religious ideas are at the center of the personhood movement. So we are all being subjected to the belief that a women's pain through childbirth is necessary for salvation and is inextricably linked to necessary submission to her husband's will. Go Genesis 3:16!
The fundamentalist religious have long organized in methodical, systematic and militant ways against women's equality. They feel like they are under assault. Modernity threatens not just their way of life, but their very way of knowing. I try and remember this every time I find myself slack-jawed with disbelief. They will eventually adapt (consider how creationism took on the language of science to become "intelligent design"), but we are waiting out this transition at the cost of gender equality and of girls and women suffering, growing desperate, and dying. And as long as we degrade equality in this way, by giving in to ignorance and the dangerous eliding of religion and politics, we put our democracy at real risk.
And, I know, to paraphrase (appropriately here on so many levels) Jonathan Swift, there's no reasoning people out of positions they didn't reason into. And yet, I keep trying.
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