Lauren Gatta

As an increasing number of people opt to get screened for genetic risks, new questions pop up about what role awareness of risks can play in lifestyle planning. Researchers at Yale and Syracuse University tried to answer one of these questions — how do genetic risks impact people’s plan to have children?

Researchers randomly assigned a disease and a risk level for that disease from 20 to 80 percent to the study participants, who then decided based on their hypothetical diagnosis if they would alter their plans to have children. From the study, researchers concluded that despite the risk of disease, most female and male participants remain determined to have children. The study was published in the journal Social Sciences and Medicine on Sept. 27.

“With the increase in genetic testing and consumer genetic companies like 23andMe making genetic information more available, more people will be faced with choices based on genetics in the future,” said Shana Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse and author on the study. “By asking about how people understand and think about genetic risk before they are in the mindset of having children, we can understand how that may affect their reproductive decision making later in life.”

The researchers selected participants between the ages of 18 and 44 — the age range in which reproduction is most common. All 223 participants of the study did not currently have children but were planning to do so at some point in their lives. According to Candas Pinar ’14 GRD ’18, an author of the study, a larger sample size would have been desirable, since smaller numbers prevent researchers from drawing broader conclusions.

The study is unique in that it focuses on men in addition to women, according to Gadarian, who explained that research on reproductive habits generally focuses on women, even though men also play significant roles in the planning process.

The research team focused on diseases that affect men and women equally: colon cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. Participants were given vignettes — small descriptions of the disease and its effects — and were told to rank the likelihood that they would change their reproductive plans if they had an increased chance of developing one of the three diseases.

Pinar explained that literature on the social effects of genetic risk can often conflict and that existing analyses point in opposing directions. Some studies show that men are more likely to engage in risky behavior when confronted with genetic risk data, but on the other hand, while other studies demonstrate a similarity in men’s and women’s behaviors. Based on these studies, Pinar said, the team hypothesized the latter.

Pinar also pointed out that while genetic risk information seems to have no effect on family planning, those same warnings often motivate change in other parts of people’s lives.

“People who participated in the survey were more likely to buy or increase their health and life insurance,” Pinar said. “They were more likely to consult their family members about the risk and more likely to manage the risk through behavioral changes such as eating better and exercising more regularly, but we found that this doesn’t hold in the realm of reproduction.”

The study also adds to a larger discussion about how parents share the responsibility for reproductive decisions. The researchers of this particular study cited Kate Reed’s 2009 report on the gendered lens of child health responsibility, which looked at the supposed tendency to consider the mother’s health and genetics more closely than the father’s when screening for abnormalities. Including men in the conversation could help equalize responsibility and lead to a “broader shift” in the social sciences of reproduction, according to Pinar.

The study will be released in print this December in the 218th volume of the journal.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu .