From “the Dangerous Womb” to a More Complex Reality

Posted by Jessica Cussins August 21, 2014
Biopolitical Times
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The policing and criminalization of pregnant women’s bodies has a long history that is soaked in discrimination. Methods used have ranged from coercive sterilizations, to forcing women to give birth in shackles, to imprisoning women for taking drugs while pregnant, to increasing restrictions on women’s access to safe abortions.

The recent focus in the scientific community on epigenetics – the way in which environmental stimuli impact gene expression – must contend with the deep scars and ongoing struggles of this contentious reality.

Mounting research that suggests the importance of a healthy environment for a growing fetus, as well as throughout a person’s life, may be used in incredibly positive ways to enable much needed societal changes: For example, it can support efforts to increase access to fresh food in dismally dry “food deserts,” and to help provide non-criminalized treatment for addiction. The responsible dissemination of information can also help empower people to make better choices for themselves and their family.

But there is also the chance that this information will be brandished as shiny new scientific data to be used once again to justify only more ardent vilification of mothers and pregnant women.

A letter submitted to Nature last week titled “Society: Don’t blame the mothers,” addresses exactly this concern. The co-authors – seven academics working on the developmental origins of health and disease and the cultural studies of science – point to recent press headlines, noting how epigenetic research is already being simplistically depicted to prioritize maternal fault and under-represent compounding paternal, familial, and societal factors. 

Given that it is now known that stress and diet can cause epigenetic harm to sperm, leading to increased problems in offspring, there is certainly no scientific basis for the near-exclusive focus on women and their habits.

A Science Special Issue on parenting published last week also addresses the impact of epigenetics on offspring, but thankfully includes many different reports that portray a much more complex picture of the different ways that both parents and society can profoundly impact children’s development.

The articles cover a wide range of topics. “Parenting from before conception” takes an in-depth look at the impact of epigenomics due to the age and environmental exposures of both parents. It further discusses transgenerational impacts, as well as epigenomic variation beyond the DNA, including noncoding RNA and the mitochondria.

An article titled “An experiment in zero parenting” reports that serious neglect and lack of stimulation – as evidenced in Romania's Abandoned Children can lead to severe cognitive and emotional distress, causing long-term changes to the development of the brain and “profound intellectual delay,” though eventual care can lead to some improvement.

 “Neural control of maternal and paternal behaviors” discusses the fact that there is “a large range of intrinsic and environmentally driven neural modulation and plasticity,” pointing to how different factors impacting the neural system can lead to drastic changes in parental behavior, and again stressing the importance of parental interaction for children’s healthy development. Additionally, “The biology of mammalian parenting and its effect on offspring social development” investigates “the hormonal and neural regulation of mammalian parenting and its consequences for infant social development,” pointing to such phenomena as the activation of certain neural pathways after a child is born that encourages parents to nurture and protect their child, which in turn impacts the neural systems of that child.

Nature's first functional food” highlights how mothers’ breast milk had been a chronically under-studied super-food full of unique complex carbohydrates providing all kinds of protections for infants. “Maternal mental illness” poses hard questions about our societal priorities, pointing to the hardships that women can face in “the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.”

Many of the new findings reported in this special Science issue have disturbing implications for the impact of IVF and other assisted reproductive techniques on the health of resulting offspring. Here are some words of caution (extracted from three different articles) about the kinds of detrimental changes caused by manipulations involved in IVF:

1. “At least in mice, conception by IVF alters later placental and fetal development, growth trajectory after birth, and metabolic parameters and behavior in adult life.”

2. “In vitro procedures expose the early embryo to highly unusual conditions, with possible long-term health consequences as the child ages.”

3. “ART-conceived animals do appear more likely to have problems metabolizing glucose, and this effect may be transmitted to subsequent generations, probably through epigenetic changes.”

It seems clear that assisted reproductive technologies, as well as the environmental and social structures we find ourselves in, carry under-studied risks not only for our children, but for future generations. Parents-to-be deserve to know about all of these factors so they can make informed decisions about how to live their lives and raise their families. And policy makers now have the important opportunity to use this data to help create powerful changes to the structure of our society.

The fact that biology is much more mutable than we have previously believed is not only of relevance to pregnant women, but to all of us and to the society we live in. Focusing on “the dangerous womb” is far too simplistic, and a problematic omission of other compounding factors.