Origins, Autism and The Meaning of Pregnancy

I’m back again for a bit and, once again, starting with a post rather than comments.  Last time I did this it meant I didn’t get to the comments, for which I apologize.  I think I’ve a pretty good chance of doing it all today.

A while back I posted about a book called “Origins.”  It’s about the importance of fetal origins (by which the author means the period in utero) in human development.   I originally posted about media coverage generated by the release of the book, but I did get around to actually reading the book, which I found disappointing.   My advice would be to stick with the media coverage.)

The idea here is that the fetal environment turns out to have a great deal of influence of the development of the child who is eventually born.   Some of this is hardly news–think of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.   But research seems to show much more far-reaching influences.

In that context, consider this news report about a recent study which is taken from last week’s NYT.   The study looked at the incidence of autism in identical twins, fraternal twins, and non-twin siblings.   Identical twins have identical DNA, but fraternal twins have as great a genetic relationship as do an siblings–their DNA comes from the same two people.

What I’ve come to expect are studies about people who share identical twins and how they share more traits than fraternal twins or siblings and how this shows the importance of DNA.   But that’s not the story here.

What is striking here is that the rate of autism in pairs of fraternal twins is higher than the rate of autism in pairs of siblings who are not twins.   Genetically speaking, there is no difference between fraternal twins and any pairs of siblings, so something other than genetics must explain this.   So  what is it that fraternal twins have in common that pairs of siblings do not?    The fetal environment.  Fraternal twins are in utero together.   Non-twin siblings are in utero at different times and hence, in different environment.

Thus, it appears that the fetal environment (which they refer to as an “environmental factor” in the study) are a significant factor in the occurance of autism.   Indeed, the conclusion of the study is that austism “has moderate genetic heritability and a substantial shared twin environmental component”–suggesting that the environmental factors are more important than the genetic ones.

The implications here are interesting, though of course this is only one study and one should procede with caution:  The period of pregnancy matters to development–and perhaps matters a great deal.

There are two ways in which this is important for my topic here–both of which are raised in that earlier post on this topic.   First,  and more narrowly, what does this mean for surrogacy?   I’m thinking particularly about the international outsourced surrogacy practiced in India and other places.

It seems to me that it is in this context that there is the greatest risk that the women who are pregnant are treated like vessels.  I don’t have the sense that the selection of surrogates is made with the same considerations as is the selection of gamete providers.   And I don’t have the sense that the conditions of the surrogates during the pregnancy are viewed as part of the formative environment–except to the extent the women may be kept in compounds so that they can be assured proper nutrition and denied access to harmful substances.   It’s hard to imagine these practices would persist if we all thought that the in utero environment was an important determinant of subsequent human development.  Indeed, if we accept that, then I think the practice of surrogacy will change and will come to more closely resemble the practices around selection of third-party gametes.

Second, and more generally, this study demonstrates the importance of the contribution to human development made during the process of pregnancy.   This, it seems to me, strenghtens the claim of a woman who is pregnant/gives birth to some sort of important legal status vis-a-vis the resulting child.  In my book this would be legal parentage, of course.

I’ll stop now.  I recently learned the phrase “teal deer” and I want to avoid earning that mark.  More to follow, though.


5 responses to “Origins, Autism and The Meaning of Pregnancy


    The instances of fraternal twins is skyrocketing right along with the rate autism. IVF, is responsible for all the fraternal twins born to damn near elderly women with a history of having taken fertility drugs using the sperm of their also damn near elderly husbands to fertilize the eggs of spry young fertile things so that they can finally have that baby they want so much.

    The parents of these children made the choice to allow their child to be gestated by a woman whose advanced age and medical history put their child at a high risk for autism. The mother should really have to deal with the ramifications of her decision, but sadly that is not the case because of laws that allow her to shirk responsibility for the children she creates.

    I’m sure that is not the only reason for autism, but older women appear to have autistic children and by that i mean 30 and over. So that is not a genetic thing. Its just our bodies are past the age for carrying children at that age especially first children.

    Certainly does not make the woman that carries the child a mother and the woman that created the child not a mother. Mother and Father? Who is in charge? Who has the authority to grant an outsider permission to raise their child? The thing that non-bio mothers and fathers will never be able to escape is that their presence in the child’s life has been purly at the descretion of the parents that created the child.
    The flip side of a non-bio parent needing the parent’s consent in order to act in a parental capacity over their child is that consent of the non-bio parent is also ethically required before taking on the responsibility of raising someone else’s offspring. A person should not be forced into being a non-biological parent unwillingly. Parenthood does not require consent or permission of the parents, its just a fact that they became parents the moment their child was born. Something they can never escape. Non-biological parenthood always involves performance of caregiving responsibilities and we know its typically performed willingly and with great entheusiasm. It is a type of parenthood that a child may in fact find more dependable and reassuring because the person voluntarily took them on rather than being stuck with them.

    Off the rails, but fraternal twins on the rise from IVF and ergo autism

    • I’ve read (but have no cite for it now) that the incidence of autism may also be linked to the age of the man who provided the sperm. You know, with no ART at all you can have seventy year old men who father children. (Think Tony Randall.)

      I wonder if the study here controlled for age of the gamete providers. Be a good factor to control for and it’s probably possible to see if they did that if someone actually reads the report of the study. I cannot recall. .

      • Yes that is very much part in parcel with these links I put in my comment above. Part of the problem (they say) seems to occur with extreme disparities in age between and old male and a young female and then also add to that that they beleieve gestation in an elderly body also causes similar problems in its own right so really its kind of interesting that while its possible to fudge things by separating reproduction from gestation, there may be a secondary defense to prevent the aging body from performing acts of human reproduction and gestation.

  2. Julie,

    There are other studies that have shown how important the mothers frame of mind are on the outcome for the child.
    Note the exclusion of mothers who considered adoption…which is telling.

    The study was conducted with a population of 154 pregnant women, who were over the age of 20, had no plans to move in the 2-year study period, no adoption plans, no chronic medical conditions or medications that would impact the study, no substance abuse issues, no editing disorders, and no bipolar illness.
    The majority of women know that cigarettes, alcohol and drugs can affect their growing baby during pregnancy. What they may not know is that stress during pregnancy is also a risk factor that may have significant consequences for the developing fetus. In fact, stress during pregnancy may result in lasting effects on the infant’s health status, the development and function of the infant’s immune system; and the cognitive development of the infant.

    The study is on the differences of acute stress and subjective stress – pretty interesting.

    Now if only laws could keep up with science – or science was thought of when laws are created.

  3. frankly i think there’s a bit too much paranoia about what pregnant women do during pregnancy. Science is following the path of former superstitions of what pregnatn women weren’t supposed to eat or look at.

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