Hear that biological clock, guys?

New research suggests sperm has a best-before date -- that might just change some things.


Kate Harding
April 6, 2009 6:55PM (UTC)

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Lisa Belkin has a somewhat more serious take on the recent study that gave us the scientific case for cougars. Leaving out the bit about older women, Belkin focuses on data that shows babies born to older fathers -- and here, "older" could mean as young as 30 -- have lower IQ scores and an increased risk of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. The evidence for all of the above is not overwhelming at this point, but Belkin correctly notes that, "for better or worse, we humans have proved that we'll upend our lives over a few bits of cautionary data." And that goes double when it's parenting data. A few more studies like these, and the idea that older sperm makes for imperfect babies could really take hold.

Just imagine what would happen if it did! Writes Belkin, "All those silver-haired sex symbols, and balding sugar daddies, and average-Joe divorced guys who are on their second families because they can be while their exes are raising their first set of kids -- what if all of them became, in women's eyes, too darned old? ... Would men of all ages come to understand -- firsthand, not just from the sidelines -- the fear that the very passage of time will put your not-yet-conceived baby at risk?"

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I'm cynical enough that my first two answers to that are 1) Probably not, and 2) If they ever did, it would totally be an "If Men Could Menstruate" scenario. If men really had to prioritize having children in the early days of their careers, it would be about five minutes before every office building in America had a flex-time schedule and free daycare. And hey, that might be reason enough to hype the heck out of these particular bits of cautionary data -- if not for point 1. Biological clock or no biological clock, there's still the sociological conditioning that says men are supposed to be the primary breadwinners. I can hear the argument now: Surely, a healthy nest egg built over time is worth more to the child than a few IQ points?

Nevertheless, as Belkin puts it, "A world in which each man heard his clock tick even a fraction as urgently as each woman could be a very different world indeed." If nothing else, it might help put a tiny dent in the stereotype of the desperate, irrationally baby-addled 30-ish woman. That race to get pregnant looks a whole lot more rational when you're the one hearing that waiting until your mid-30s will pretty much make you a bad parent before you even are one. Welcome to the club, guys.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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