by Jennifer Thompson, MPH
Epigenetics is a relatively new field, and many widely publicized studies have examined animals, not humans. That hasn’t stopped journalists from inferring that study results in rats will be replicated in humans, with the resulting impression that negative outcomes might be the mother’s fault. Gillman and colleagues argue that such media coverage is part of a long history of blaming women for their children’s poor health. Early medical texts claimed that a woman’s diet, nerves, or the company she kept during pregnancy could result in her child having birth deformities, mental defects, or even criminal tendencies. Later physicians blamed cold, uncaring “refrigerator mothers” for their children’s autism. Most recently, our society still stigmatizes women who consume even a small amount of alcohol while pregnant, despite studies that have failed to find adverse effects in the children of moderate drinkers.
This is not to diminish women’s control over their bodies, during pregnancy or at any other time. Maintaining healthy behaviors during pregnancy does matter. However, we need to be careful about assigning blame. Not all pregnant women have the time and resources to “double-down on healthful eating if you want to avoid setting up your unborn child for a lifetime of wrestling with obesity,” as one National Public Radio story advised. And some maternal experiences while pregnant are unavoidable. For example, it’s hard to see how we can blame women who were unfortunate enough to witness the 9/11 terrorist attacks while pregnant.
Ultimately, Gillman and colleagues argue that decisions made while pregnant are just some of many things – including the father’s genetic contribution, as well as social, economic, and environmental factors during childhood – that can influence a child’s health. Maybe this will take some of the burden of blame off of pregnant women.