The Fetus and Science

Recently on Twitter a good deal of criticism was hurled at The Atlantic for publishing an article that was originally entitled “how the ultrasound pushed the idea that a fetus is a person.” The headline was later changed to “The Politics of Ultrasound.”

Twitter also recently brought to my attention another article, by Suzanne Sadedin, titled “War in the womb”. It attempts to portray the fetal-maternal relationship as a battle between mother and child. Relying on David Haig’s parental conflict hypothesis, the author states that the infant’s “genome would evolve to manipulate your mother into providing more resources for you. In turn, her genes would manoeuvre to provide you with fewer resources. The situation becomes a tug-of-war.” According to the article, the idea is that it is in the father’s best interest to have the embryo take as much from the mother as possible (since that may be his only child with her), whereas the mother has to counteract this for the benefit of her own survival. The result is mother-child warfare: “control of the circulation overridden, arteries jammed wide-open, blood pressure forced into overdrive,” according to the summary in this article by Sophie Lewis, a reproductive rights proponent.

One major problem with this argument is that it misunderstands the parental conflict hypothesis by thinking it’s about a conflict between the fetus/father and the mother. As Haig himself has recently said, “Contrary to widespread belief, the theory defines conditions for cooperation as well as conflict in mother–offspring relations. Moreover, conflict between genes of maternal and paternal origin is not the same as conflict between mothers and fathers.” It makes little sense to say that the infant’s genes manipulate the mother into providing more resources; after all, half of the infant’s genes are taken from the mother! According to Haig’s theory, these maternally-derived fetal genes will actually prevent the fetus from taking too much from its mother.

In fact, understanding it as a conflict at all, except in a limited analogous sense, is dangerous. Imagine saying that insulin and glucagon are engaged in a war in the bloodstream, rather than simply describing their antagonistic effects as a negative feedback loop that acts for the good of the whole organism. This indicates a more fundamental flaw in the article: the attribution to body parts of motives normally attributed to people. It is conceptual confusion to say that a placenta greedily secretes hormones for its own growth, while the mother’s body has its own manipulations to defend itself. A placenta can’t be greedy, nor can a body manipulate anything: this would require a conscious intent which both lack. Such charged language tells us more about the cynicism of the writer than about the facts of development. Like with opposing hormones, it makes more sense to understand the conflict as two opposing forces that balance each other out for the good of mother and child. In fact, the rhetoric of the articles is so distorted that it could lead one to think that the mother makes no effort to help the embryo/fetus. This, of course, is false. The number of proteins that the mother has that act for the good of the infant is countless. Finally, more often than not, the mother – who, unlike her body parts, can have motives – loves her developing infant and wishes it the best.

Much more than the ultrasound, this makes a great example of how science can be politicized. Poor reasoning that would not be used elsewhere is only used regarding the fetus and mother because it makes a more interesting story, or perhaps since it easily lends support to a specific political movement.

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