J Med Ethics doi:10.1136/medethics-2014-102405
  • Reproductive ethics
  • Paper

Paternal age bioethics

  1. Kevin R Smith
  1. Correspondence to Dr Kevin R Smith, School of Science, Engineering and Technology, Abertay University, Dundee DD1 1HG, UK; k.smith{at}
  • Received 31 July 2014
  • Revised 16 February 2015
  • Accepted 13 May 2015
  • Published Online First 2 June 2015


Modern genetic sequencing studies have confirmed that the sperm of older men contain a greater number of de novo germline mutations than the sperm of younger men. Although most of these mutations are neutral or of minimal phenotypic impact, a minority of them present a risk to the health of future children. If demographic trends towards later fatherhood continue, this will likely lead to a more children suffering from genetic disorders. A trend of later fatherhood will accelerate the accumulation of paternal-origin de novo mutations in the gene pool, gradually reducing human fitness in the long term. These risks suggest that paternal age is of ethical importance. Children affected by de novo mutations arising from delayed fatherhood can be said to be harmed, in the sense of ‘impersonal’ harm or ‘non-comparative’ harm. Various strategies are open at societal and individual levels towards reducing deleterious paternal age effects. Options include health education to promote earlier fatherhood, incentives for young sperm donors and state-supported universal sperm banking. The latter approach would likely be of the greatest benefit and could in principle be implemented immediately. More futuristically, human germline genetic modification offers the potential to repair heritable mutational damage.

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