There is a cultural perception that women are very likely to cause fetal harm, reflected in limitations on women’s participation in clinical trials and certain jobs, public service announcements telling women not to drink alcohol while pregnant, and extensive media coverage of ‘‘crack babies.’’ The long history of the medical realm treating women’s bodies as weak, permeable, and inherently diseased contributes to the worry that women’s bodies will ‘‘infect’’ fetuses. Men’s bodies, in contrast, are as seen as stable, bound, and healthy; therefore, they are not a risk to fetuses. However, this belief is scientifically inaccurate. Men’s behaviors and characteristics can cause paternal-fetal harm. For instance, paternal smoking and drinking can result in an increased chance of birth defects and low birth weight. Paternal use of illegal drugs (such as cocaine, hashish, opium, and heroin) can also lead to fetal health problems because of abnormal sperm. Additionally, older paternal age has been associated with a higher risk of children with autism, Down syndrome, and schizophrenia.
Despite these scientific facts, there is little public and academic discussion of men and fetal harm, which implies that men do not (or cannot) cause such harm. The cultural narrative that men are not causally or ethically responsible for fetal harm has been reified in law, policy, medicine, and the media. Even the language we use to discuss reproduction and childcare minimizes the role men play in reproduction. The verb “to father” is synonymous with ‘‘to sire’’ and refers to impregnating a woman, that is, the one time event of fertilization. In contrast, “to mother” refers to constant caregiving and nurturing.
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