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Epigenetics, Women, and Freedom

Will new insights into epigenetics and human development lead to restrictions against pregnant women, discrimination against women in general, or a pushback against scientists and policy-makers who are blamed for "mother bashing"?

Judith Shulevitz, writing for The New Republic, says people concerned that epigenetics studies of the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) will result in an assault on mother's freedoms and a knee-jerk backlash against valuable research may be being a bit alarmist, but they also have a point.

Specifically, she is responding to an op-ed in Nature last week by several researchers who warn that simplistic popular media reports about the latest DOHaD epigenetics findings, such as links between type 2 diabetes in mothers and their children, is likely to lead to scapegoating against mothers.

"There is a long history of society blaming mothers for the ill health of their children. Preliminary evidence of fetal harm has led to regulatory over-reach," Sarah Richardson and her co-authors say.

Ideally, DOHaD research would be used to guide policies that support parents and children, but exaggerations and over-simplifications about these findings could lead to increased surveillance and regulation of pregnant women, they write, and urge researchers, press officers, and journalists to avoid "irresponsible discussion" of these topics. They worry that epigenetics studies that go beyond substance abuse associations, which have been the forerunners of the DOHaD field, and into all aspects of daily life could over-emphasize the role of a mother in the fetus's development.

Richardson and her partners ask scientists, educators, and reporters to anticipate how DOHaD research is likely to be interpreted in popular discussions, and should emphasize that findings at this point are too preliminary to provide recommendations for daily life.

In The New Republic, Shulevitz says Richardson and others are right that there are risks, and notes that the scientific grounds for criticizing or regulating the behavior of pregnant women "are almost always shakier than they look at first."

She also says it is the potential involvement of socio-economic and environmental factors in fetal development that give epigenetics its "really radical edge."

And, of course, epigenetics is showing that fathers' health, habits, and environmental influences also may impact a child's development, and potentially could contribute more genetic risks due to epigenetic damages that accrue over a lifetime than the mother.

"In other words, epigenetics can bolster feminism; it doesn’t necessarily militate against it," Shulevitz writes.