Bioethics Blogs

From “the Dangerous Womb” to a More Complex Reality

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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.