This piece was in yesterday’s NYT. I’m in no position to comment on the science so, for the moment, I’m going to assume it is sound, though I do know there is plenty of bad science out there. The essay (it was on the op-ed page, so I think of it as an essay rather than as news) is about diet in the very early stages of a child’s life and how it has lifelong effects–at least according to the study the essay is considering.
But the studies aren’t only about the effects of diet after the child is born. Here’s the part that leads me to write here:
Mothers who were fed foods like Froot Loops, Cheetos and Nutella during pregnancy had offspring that showed increased expression of the gene for an opioid receptor, which resulted in a desensitization to sweet and fatty foods. “The best way to think about how having a desensitized reward pathway would affect you is to use the analogy of somebody who is addicted to drugs,” Jessica R. Gugusheff, a Ph.D. candidate at FoodPlus and the lead author of the study, wrote in an email. “When someone is addicted to drugs they become less sensitive to the effects of that drug, so they have to increase the dose to get the same high,” she wrote. “In a similar way, by having a desensitized reward pathway, offspring exposed to junk food before birth have to eat more junk food to get the same good feelings.”
(One thing I think I should clarify first: that passive voice thing at the very beginning– “mothers who were fed….’– I think read carefully in context it is actually about rats in a lab study. This makes that formulation tolerable. My first reading of it lead me to think it was about human mothers and I was fairly unhappy about that for a variety of reasons. Suffice it to say that the writing could be a bit clearer (the focus switches from lab rats to humans sentence to sentence) but that since I’m taking this out of context I’m making it look even worse.
Anyway, to return to the point: The idea here is that the pregnant woman’s diet has lasting or even life-long effects on the resulting child when it comes to things like food preferences and such like. Let’s assume that’s the case. Why would it matter?
First off, in general this type of finding will lead to more scrutiny of pregnant women and their behavior. Suddenly they are responsible for the possible obesity of their child. (I don’t mean that pregnant women should be oblivious to the health effects of their behavior on their child. I think it’s probably pretty clear that heavy smoking during pregnancy is a bad idea. But one could also note that the folks who manufacture Cheetos and FrootLoops could bear a little responsibility, even as I think cigarette companies should.) These are companies that profit from products that are not actually good for anyone. (And I say this as pa person who loves Cheetos.)
I am not suggesting that all consideration of the pregnant woman’s behavior is necessarily wrong. The research, if sound, is valuable. It allows pregnant women to make intelligent choices about their behavior. But I’m wary of a tendency to take studies like these and use them to impose external controls over pregnant women.
Second, this seems to me a fine place to highlight the special position of pregnant women vis-à-vis the child. The expectant mother has to watch her diet and make all these other choices about behavior while her partner (who may well be the genetic father of the child) can eat all the Cheetos he wants. I note this only because it seems to me that, much as we may want to have similar treatment for men and women, pregnancy is a phenomenon that must frustrate that desire. Men and women–genetic fathers and genetic mothers–are in profoundly different positions during that time. I’m not saying what conclusions one has to draw from that. In particular I’m not asserting that this is a reason why birth-mother-custody should be preferred when parents separate. I’m just saying we have to confront and consider what difference this different positioning makes.
Third, this study provides some further evidence that the impact of the pregnant woman on the child is lasting. To me this this seems similar to the assertion (which I accept) that the impact of the people who provide the gametes is lasting. Perhaps neither of these observations tells us who should be recognized as a legal parent. But there’s a certain parallelism here.
And finally, I cannot help but consider what the ramifications of this sort of finding will be for surrogacy. Surely at least some people who contract with surrogates will now be (even more?) concerned with regulating the behavior of the surrogate, perhaps adding contractual provisions that the surrogate will not consume junk food. (And I’m sure some people wouldn’t even consider a surrogate who ate junk food in the first place.) This makes me uneasy. I worry about the power dynamic between the IPs and the surrogate. The more important pregnancy is to the ultimate well-being of the child, the more control the IPs will want to assert. It reinforces my belief that the best setting in which surrogacy can possibly occur is one in which there is some form of deep mutual respect between the parties—and that the law should be structured to encourage that.