The Father and the Fetus

I’m a little behind on my reading, so I just noticed that in Sunday’s paper, Judith Shulevitz wrote about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: epigenetics and fatherhood. The crux of the piece is that men’s lifestyles–what they eat, drink, and more–can alter the little molecular tags that are affixed to their genes. These tags essentially act as switches, telling a man’s body when and where to express a certain gene and governing how strongly a gene is expressed. But a man can also pass these genetic settings onto his offspring, which means that a man’s lifestyle and his environment can influence the health of his future children. It’s a fascinating link that deserves much more attention. As Shulevitz puts it:

Think of epigenetics as having ushered in a new age of sexual equality, in which both sexes have to worry about threats to which women once felt uniquely exposed. Dr. Malaspina remembers that before she went to medical school, she worked in a chemical plant making radioactive drugs. The women who worked there came under constant, invasive scrutiny, lest the toxic workplace contaminate their eggs. But maybe, Dr. Malaspina points out, the plant managers should have spared some concern for the men, whose germlines were just as susceptible to poisoning as the women’s, and maybe even more so. The well-being of the children used to be the sole responsibility of their mothers. Now fathers have to be held accountable, too. Having twice endured the self-scrutiny and second-guessing that goes along with being pregnant, I wish them luck.

I also wrote about this topic a few years ago. In addition to looking at the science of the father-fetal connection, my story explores why the link doesn’t get more attention.

Despite the accumulating findings, the idea that fathers can somehow contribute to birth defects has gained little traction in the public sphere. Cigarette packs have no warnings about the association between male smokers and birth defects. A woman who drinks while she’s pregnant can be prosecuted, but most men have no idea that drinking in the months before conception is risky.

“Why would we not look at the paternal side of the equation? To me that’s really a social and political puzzle,” says Cynthia R. Daniels, a political scientist at Rutgers who studies gender and reproductive politics. “We seem to politically be in a place where we overprotect and over-warn women, but where men and fathers remain almost completely invisible. You’re not likely anytime soon to see signs in bars that say, ‘Men who drink should not reproduce.’”

Epigenetics and fatherhood is a huge public health story that’s being largely overlooked. (The one exception: A subset of research showing that older fathers are more likely to have children with autism and schizophrenia. These studies always seem to garner a flurry of media attention. But these findings are only a small piece of a much larger puzzle.) I hope the Times story helps change that.

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