Magazine | January 24, 2011, Issue

Present at the Creation

Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, by Annie Murphy Paul (Free Press, 320 pp., $26)

This story begins in a Tot Lot playground on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Watching her three-year-old son play, author Annie Murphy Paul wonders: “What makes you the way you are?” Every human life is unique and irreplaceable, full of wonder, beauty, and mystery; no one quite knows how we get to be who we are, but that doesn’t stop us from speculating. At the Tot Lot, Paul is told that her son has his father’s professorial temperament and his mother’s journalistic sensitivity, “as if his personality traits were lottery numbers drawn at conception.” Then there are the crucial first years after birth, in which nature and nurture play their eternally disputed parts.

To these important factors we must now add another: fetal origins. This is a burgeoning new line of research, which Paul, a science journalist, ably investigates and presents to general readers. She describes how our prenatal environment influences the expression of our genes, how this unwitting nurture in the womb shapes our nature — not only the growth of our physical organs, but our health, appetites, intelligence, personality, and even lifespan. While the book is not as well organized as one might have hoped — and a bit thin toward the end — it’s engagingly written and full of interesting facts and figures.

Paul summarizes the central finding of fetal-origins research as follows: The child in the womb is not “an inert being — ‘the larval stage of human development,’” but rather “an active and dynamic creature, responding and even adapting to conditions inside and outside its mother’s body as it readies itself for life in the particular world it will soon enter.” Likewise, the pregnant mother is not a “passive incubator,” but “a powerful and often positive influence on her child even before it’s born.”

Paul is careful to emphasize positive, to avoid increasing the pressure on women who are already made to see every choice they make as potentially harmful to their unborn child. She notes, for example, that eating well during pregnancy can yield long-lasting benefits. Research shows that flavors from foods reach the amniotic fluid that we all swallowed in utero: Being fed a diet of sugary, salty, and fatty foods helps structure the development of the fetal brain’s reward center to prefer such foods — but the same goes for being fed a diet of vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods. Also, babies tailor their physiology according to the level of nutrients they received in the womb: Those who are gestated on slim pickings are often unprepared biologically for a postnatal gluttony, hence much of modern obesity. (Studies of babies who were gestated during famines and wars but came of age during times of plenty support this thesis.)

#page#Just as our taste buds and metabolism are developing in utero, so too are our responses to stress. Recent studies of pregnant women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show that there is a “transgenerational transmission of PTSD risk.” Even after controlling for early-childhood experience and parenting, the evidence suggests that susceptibility to PTSD is passed down from mother to child in the womb. Likewise, various forms of depression, anxiety, and mood disorders affect the developing child. Doctors are finding that “a pregnant woman’s emotional state can influence the fetus’s developing brain and nervous system, potentially shaping the way the offspring will experience and manage its own emotions.” While Paul makes clear that she is no determinist — “prenatal experience doesn’t force the individual down a particular path; at most, it points us in a general direction, and we can take another route if we choose” — she is equally clear that our personalities begin to form remarkably early, and much hinges on the mother.

Paul encourages people to reach out to assist pregnant women, especially during times of personal crisis and national emergency (research from 9/11 pregnancies shows the impact of crisis on the unborn). She quotes one researcher: “Historically, people knew that it was a good idea to take special care of pregnant women. But in modern times, we’ve forgotten that.” While she cautions against going too far and treating women as invalids, Paul urges all to realize that “pregnancy and childrearing do make us more dependent on others.” This statement is typical, as she is nuanced in her discussion of the various influences on unborn life and what we should do about them.

While Origins is well-written, one of the oddest stylistic features is Paul’s consistent reference to the unborn child as a “fetus.” Now in certain medical contexts, including within this book, using such a term makes sense. But too often Paul’s use of “fetus” is jarring. Describing her own ultrasound, she writes: “There was my fetus moving on the screen, limbs jerking loosely like a marionette.” Mothers I know say: “There was my baby moving on the screen.” A page later, Paul writes: “There’s no doubt that seeing one’s future child on an ultrasound monitor is a powerful experience.” Why “future”? Why not “seeing one’s child”? She speaks, in her own voice, of “fetus” and “future child,” yet she quotes a psychology research authority as finding that women strongly agree with the following statements: “After watching the ultrasound I know my baby better.” “After viewing the ultrasound I feel more attached to my baby.” Exactly: Baby. Not “fetus” or “future child.”

Only at the book’s end, where Paul reminisces about “marching arm in arm” at an “abortion-rights rally,” does the reader finally understand why she was at such pains to use the clinical term “fetus.” Paul clearly sees — and wants to mute — an implication of the research that she popularizes: No mere clump of cells or blob of tissue, the unborn child is a living, dynamic, self-directing, and interacting baby. (Or, as Paul puts it, “a learning, adapting, responding fetus.”)

The doctors she spoke with grew uneasy when Paul asked them about abortion: Research into “fetal origins is concerned with the relationship between prenatal experience and postnatal life,” they told her. “For the aborted fetus, there is no postnatal life, so the matter of fetal origins is moot.” But this is an evasive response. The central issue in the abortion debate is whether there ought to be a postnatal life for the unborn child, and much of that hinges on what the “fetus” is — and fetal-origins research is shedding important light on that question.

#page#But just as fetal-origins research makes the abortion-rights supporter uneasy, so too, Paul argues, should it discomfit the pro-lifer. Anyone who relegates “the pregnant woman to the role of human incubator,” as Paul argues pro-lifers have, will be challenged by this research. If abortion-rights supporters “have indeed forgotten the fetus,” so “pro-life forces have also ‘forgotten someone’: the pregnant woman.”

As it happens, I finished reading Origins the day after attending the St. Joseph County (Ind.) Right to Life dinner. As the dinner concluded, guests were asked to open an envelope with a personalized card for each of us. My card read: “My name is Paloma, on Wednesday, May 7, 2008, my life ended before I was born. Please pray for my family. Though I am with Jesus, they still grieve.” Likewise, at each Mass, my parish includes a prayer petition for expecting mothers. At that same Right to Life  dinner, a major fundraising goal was to support the South Bend Women’s Care Center and the billboard — located right next to the local abortion clinic — advertising the center. One week later, undergraduates at my university collected donations and bought necessary care items as they organized a baby shower for expectant mothers. So much for forgetting women.

Still, there is much more to be done to assist pregnant women in delivering healthy and happy babies, and Origins provides helpful suggestions. If we want healthy adults, we should direct some energy toward encouraging healthy mothers. Focusing on pregnant women during their pregnancy is, after all, a “far more manageable task than convincing the entire population to eat well or exercise regularly or stop smoking.” Not only will it benefit the mothers, it will benefit the current and future lives of their unborn children. The pro-life community should run with some of these ideas and be at the vanguard of this emerging movement, even if it should resist some of Paul’s statist instincts on how to do so.

Paul closes the book with a moving passage about the delivery of her new baby: “There’s nothing more real than a baby. When we hold our babies for the first time, we imagine them clean and new, unmarked by life, when in fact they have already been shaped by the world, and by us. It’s a koan of parenthood, one worthy of contemplation: We are meeting someone we know well for the very first time.” But if that’s true, how long can one remain an “abortion-rights supporter”? Contemplating the wonder and beauty and mystery of human life will have its effects.

– Mr. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute.

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