“Men and women contribute equally to reproduction.” That’s a statement in a new paper in the journal Gender and Society about how men’s role in making babies has been culturally diminished. It is a painfully obvious sentence, and yet it bears repeating because we’re so fixated on women’s prenatal and preconception behavior and health. For example, the most emailed article on the New York Times website as I type is about how women’s eating habits affect their babies in the womb. But we barely ever mention how male behavior can affect sperm quality.
The paper, called “More and Less Than Equal: How Men Factor in the Reproductive Equation,” notes that since 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people of both genders who are looking to have a baby monitor their health more closely—but in practice, this recommendation is generally directed toward women, who are now advised to treat their pregnancies as 12 months long. This means curtailing alcohol consumption and taking prenatal vitamins before they’ve even conceived.
Yet recent research has shown that men’s preconception behavior also matters. According to the CDC, tobacco and heavy drinking can damage sperm DNA, and we’re just starting to understand how older men’s sperm may affect their offspring adversely. The only venue where male preconception health gets much attention, the authors point out, is at the sperm bank, where men’s sperm is scrutinized in a way it’s not elsewhere.
The study’s authors, Yale’s Rene Almeling and Princeton’s Miranda Waggoner, argue that the hyperfocus on women’s bodies before and during reproduction has led to a dearth of research about men’s contributions to conception. So there should be more research about men’s preconception behaviors, but on a more individual level, doctors should also be asking their male patients if they are planning on having children, just the way that women are asked at their yearly gynecological visits. On the policy level, Almeling and Waggoner suggest that the Affordable Care Act might cover men’s preconception visits, as all women’s preconception visits are now covered without copay.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the epigenetics of both men and women, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we burden men with the obsessive focus on behavior modification that we’ve unfortunately put on pregnant women. (Are you really going to have that second cup of coffee and risk destroying your baby, you evil harpy?) But I’m all for men bearing at least a little bit of responsibility when it comes to their baby-making, since the current model puts everything on women. I think most men could handle it, and they might even welcome the advice. After all, dads want healthy babies, too.