Bioethics Blogs

Epigenetics and Blaming Pregnant Women: Hasty Conclusions, Control, and Simplified Burden of Responsibility

In a recent (13.8.2014) article in Nature , Sarah S. Richardson and colleagues maintain that careless discussion of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women.

Authors discuss the extensive history of placing the burden of responsibility of a child’s health on the lifestyle of the pregnant mother – and the means for controlling women’s behavior. Authors describe how, for example, evidence of any fetal harm easily lead to zero-tolerance regulatory frameworks and severe informal and formal consequences (e.g. social condemnation for an occasional sip of alcohol despite the ambiguous evidence that very moderate and occasional drinking should harm the fetus), and how the “lack of emotional warmth” of the “refrigerator mothers ” was considered to be the reason to child autism as late as the 1970s. Going even more backwards in the history, various defects were attributed, for example, to the company the mother kept during pregnancy.

The authors note, although admitting a major difference of scale in extremity, a disturbing similarity between the well-known blaming strategies and how epigenetic research on the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) are discussed especially in the public: fast conclusions about the effects of pregnant women’s lifestyles are made, and the mother’s individual influence over the vulnerable fetus is emphasized while forgetting the role of societal factors to the very issue at hand. Authors note that especially the media simplifies these modifications to mere maternal impact; thus, to the epigenetic effects in the uterine environment. However, the situation is far more complex:

Studies suggest that diet and stress modify sperm epigenetically and increase an offspring’s risk of heart disease, autism and schizophrenia.

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