Older Parents, Weaker Children, Future America

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An important piece by Judith Shulevitz, focusing on the unforeseen effects of having children at a later age:

…The Nature study ended by saying that the greater number of older dads could help to explain the 78 percent rise in autism cases over the past decade. Researchers have suspected links between autism and parental age for years. One much-cited study from 2006 argued that the risk of bearing an autistic child jumps from six in 10,000 before a man reaches 30 to 32 in 10,000 when he’s 40—a more than fivefold increase. When he reaches 50, it goes up to 52 in 10,000. It should be noted that there are many skeptics when it comes to explaining the increase of autism; one school of thought holds that it’s the result of more doctors making diagnoses, better equipment and information for the doctors to make them with, and a vocal parent lobby that encourages them. But it increasingly looks as if autism cases have risen more than overdiagnosis can account for and that parental age, particularly paternal age, has something to do with that fact. …”

Read it all. The writer dares to look at some of the fallout from IVF and “outside the body” practices that are messing with design, in particular:

Another popular procedure coming under renewed scrutiny is ICSI (intracy toplasmic sperm injection). In ICSI, sperm or a part of a sperm is injected directly into an extracted egg. In the early ’90s, when doctors first started using ICSI, they added it to in vitro fertilization only when men had low sperm counts, but today doctors perform ICSI almost routinely—procedures more than doubled between 1999 and 2008. And y et, ICSI shows up in the studies as having higher rates of birth defects than any other popular fertility procedure. Among other possible reasons, ICSI allows sperm to bypass a crucial step in the fertilization of the egg—the binding of the head of the sperm with the coat of the egg. Forcing the sperm to penetrate the coat may be nature’s way of maintaining quality control.

Emphasis mine.

This is a really fascinating and well-done article and I urge you to read it all and share it with friends; its conclusions seek policy solutions to the problems we’re going to face and takes a starkly secular view of the thing — which is appropriate for the publication — but for Catholics, I wonder if we should not ponder this in light of Humanae Vitae, and the great mysteries that are our gift to consider every day, and feel a little humbled by all we still do not know.

1987 NY Times:
Growing up with Older Parents is Special. Perhaps less so than thought.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Janet Ann

    Well, that was depressing. I have a beautiful, healthy 8 month old boy. I am 44 and my husband is 47. Jack is my second child, I have a 16 year old daughter; he is my husband’s first child. We are not financially well off, in fact we are downright struggling. I had many medical issues that should have made getting pregnant nearly impossible, but because my husband had never had a child, and I am not a big fan of contraceptives, we left it in God’s hands. There were no fertility drugs or anything used to get him here, yet here he is against all odds. I did not do amniocentesis because of the risk of miscarriage (this happened to a good friend of mine), my husband and I were committed to raising this child, disability or no disability. Thankfully he was born healthy and happy, and our Jack has been a tremendous blessing, not just to us, but to his grandparents (yes, he still has all four, although they are older and one has terminal cancer), and our extended family and friends. I am glad I did not read this information when I was pregnant, my anxieties would have been even worse, and I’m not really sure how I am supposed to react to this as a Christian. I thought we were supposed to be open to life? At what age is it not acceptable to be open to life? I am struggling with this, because I do get sad when I think about possibly not seeing him into full adulthood. Did I do harm to this child by giving him older parents? Should I not look upon him as a miracle and a blessing? Did not Abraham and Sarah look upon their beloved son as a miracle and a blessing? When lifespans were much shorter, should people not have had children because they could very likely have died young in childbirth, or due to illness or accident? As you can tell, I still have mixed emotions, and I am curious on what the Catholic teaching is about it. The Church can encourage NFP, but even then babies still happen, so should married couples of a certain age not engage in activities that could possibly make a baby, given the risks and problems associated with older parents?

  • Laurie

    I gave birth to another beautiful, healthy daughter two years ago when I was 47 and my husband 53. Becoming pregnant again was unexpected, but we love having another little one. With our 16 year old daughter, our life, our family is so very blessed. While my husband and I didn’t do IVF, fertility drugs or any kind of procedure, it just happened.

    Regarding the links of autism with paternal age, I would put it into the category of “grasping at straws” kind of science. Though we have developed a set of criteria to determine whether a child is autistic, it is a condition we do not understand completely. If a biological link can be firmly established between autism and paternal age, then it would become a matter of dispensing advice to prospective, older parents by OB doctors.

  • TerryC

    I fear the link between autism and the use of fetal medium in the production of vaccines. Most Catholics in America don’t even realize this is happening. There was a big push because some thought the presence of mercury in vaccines was the problem, but only a few researchers have looked into the use of fetal cell lines in the production of vaccines, and no one is paying attention.
    This practice is not only wrong, it is unnecessary. It is done by pharma because it is cheaper than buying chicken eggs to make vaccine medium. The use of fetal cell lines is not meant to provide any therapeutic good. It is strictly monetary.

  • Adam


    I wouldn’t overthink this one, particularly with your last child. God gave you the child He gave you, and it sounds like you had no sinful acts or intentions in doing so. Take the baby as a blessing! I understand Elizabeth’s original post without believing that she’s leveling any specific charges against you or anyone in particular. She’s speaking to a larger social issue and its worldwide effects.

    Besides, the young aren’t immune from unhealthy babies. My wife and I had our first and only child when we were 28 and 27 (I’m the elder). That’s not too off, right? Except my daughter developed a pretty lousy case of asthma which we discovered when she was 2 and she had a pretty bad attack while we were driving through the Yukon. (We didn’t even know it was asthma until months later.) Was it genetic? Should we have not let her sleep in the cold-ish first-story bedroom in our Alaskan home? Should I have not taken her for that winter walk when she was 4 months old? I don’t know. I’ll kick myself forever over a million questionable decisions and still not know if her asthma is my fault. The best I can do is leave it be and thank God for her anyway.

  • Adam

    If I’m reading these pieces right, though, I think that the emphasis should be on the fact that this is “fallout” from a larger problem, and not the problem in and of itself. Jesus says that “we shall know a tree by its fruits,” but the problem is not the fruit, it’s the original tree. I think that, when arguing against sin, we too often get wrapped up in the consequences of the sin rather than the sin itself. (“Don’t have premarital sex, you’ll get pregnant” vs. “Don’t have premarital sex, it’s wrong.”)

    Years ago, I wrote a piece for the Catholic Medical Association on what I saw as the large problem of “assisted reproduction.” (I wish it were online, but it was published in ’04 and the journal’s online archive only goes back to ’05. Grrr.) I was researching the legal problem of multi-parent child custody disputes: what happens when a sperm donor, an egg donor, a surrogate mom, and two adoptive parents all disagree on who is the rightful parent of the child? Solomon argued over two moms; how would he deal with five? Think this doesn’t happen? The main case I was researching was this one: http://articles.latimes.com/1997/sep/30/local/me-37719.

    Anyway, in trying to resolve the issue of “who gets to be parent,” I discovered that the larger problem is the commodification of the child. No matter who wins in a multi-parent dispute, the child always loses because she’s become a football to be tossed by the parties. This is the problem with IVF, and indeed, much of how we treat children in our society: their inherent human dignity is lost. IVF (I use the term broadly–really, any artificial reproduction) creates a sense of entitlement to a child rather than recognizing that we’re participating in God’s process of creating new life. It really becomes: I must have a child to make me happy. It forgets: I’d like to have a child to make him/her happy.

    Human dignity, as I understand it, is one of the four major Catholic social principles (the other three being solidarity, subsidiarity, and common good). When you think about it, it’s what makes a lot of things wrong. Prostitution is wrong because it treats the prostitute as a commodity of pleasure. Slavery is wrong because it treats the slave as a commodity of work. Pornography is wrong because the subject becomes an object of lust. Likewise, our modern treatment of children–a commodity to have, how we want and when we want, is wrong, because it objectifies children like a degree, a house, a car, and any other major accomplishment in the checklist of life. I don’t fault people for wanting children–it’s ingrained in us!–but the modern approach and attitude needs to be reexamined.

    I’m going on too long. Anyway, my larger point is that we’re seeing the “fruits” of a larger social sin–but the sin itself was initiated years ago and needs a deep cultural change to be stopped.

  • John

    If autism is related to parental paternal age (and no other significant factor) we may need to accept it as a risk factor. How can one tell a still fertile couple that creating a baby is a dangerous act to be avoided if possible? Most mature couples I know accept and understand that births to couples over 35 have risks not usually present in pregnancies involving younger women and men. As to IVF, that horse is out of the barn, at least for the affluent among us. The best that one can realistically advocate are more laws (Europe that alleged secular paradise actually has more regulations) limiting the use of surrogates, compensation, and donors. The actual medical techniques will only be limited by some huge malpractice award against a doctor or clinic if it is proven that the method was inherently dangerous, which ICSI does not seem to be, at least for the mother.

  • Maureen from Canada

    Adam (second comment) – excellent observations. I’ve always been a bit troubled by the ‘need’ of some parents to must have a child as if it is a race that they must win. While many are excellent parents, the child is still seen as a product that they spent years and untold amounts of money to ‘get possession of’ and for some reason they need to share their experiences and fiances with anyone who is remotely nearby. I’m not advocating for banning all the various IV treatments, but there has to be some inner sense by those undergoing such treatments as to why they are doing it.

  • Chris in Va

    “The Nature study ended by saying that the greater number of older dads could help to explain the 78 percent rise in autism cases over the past decade”

    Rather than focus on whether the medical research is valid, what about the survey research? And if this research is valid do we want to or need to consider the underlying causes for later fatherhood and motherhood for that matter? In the the early 20th century having children was a vocation in and of itself. Getting married and having a family was a goal for many people. In the latter part of the 20th century through today it seems as if children are a luxury item to mainstream American society. The prominent pop culture “moral code” is that waiting until your career goals are met and your financial situation is stable before having children is to be lauded. Many seek to live a full life, then settle down and have children. Perhaps the mainstream of ideals about our vocations and children shape this data and create the conditions for increased incidences of autism and/or other illness?

  • Janet Ann

    Thank you, Adam, for your insights. I think my discomfort with these articles is that some of the very risks and problems that can come from older parents using IVF to get pregnant can be used as reasons to abort a baby who has been conceived naturally to older parents. So I agree with you wholeheartedly about the dangers of presenting consequences as arguments. Even something as silly as, “this baby will be embarassed about having older parents show up at school or the ball field” can be enough in these crazy times to convince older parents to abort. I just read of a 45 year old woman who got pregnant unexpectedly for the first time and decided to abort because of all the things that could be wrong with the baby (no testing had been done at that point), and surprise, surprise, was having severe emotional problems post-abortion. And believe me, an older pregnant woman is barraged with information about all that could go wrong. I just ask people to consider this and fully support older parents who find themselves in this situation. It can be very scary, but such a blessing. And as an aside, I think there would be a lot more late in life surprise babies being born today if it weren’t for sterilization.

  • Adam

    “So I agree with you wholeheartedly about the dangers of presenting consequences as arguments.” I’ll clarify that I’m not opposed to consequentialist arguments. When my daughter hits her teenage years, for example, I fully intend to warn her about the dangers of teenage pregnancy, STDs, broken hearts, etc. It’s just that I want my forefront argument to be about sin: offending God and mistreating whatever young man is involved.