Babies damaged by women’s lifestyle choices?

by Tara Zupancic

Mother and child playing, graphicResearch and the media – it‘s a powerful partnership.  News media outlets often determine whether a research study gathers attention or dust. But sometimes the media makes such blunders that more harm than good results. For example, yesterday I read a news report on a Scottish study’s findings of significantly lower levels of DNA methylation during the embryonic development of babies living in socioeconomically deprived areas of Glasgow.

The study suggests that these babies may be more susceptible to the early onset of certain adult diseases.  This study adds to a growing body of work on the fetal origins of disease quickly being taken up by the mainstream media (See Time Magazine).

I find this area of research important, daunting and highly complex -but if reported on  unscrupulously, the effects can be harmful.   For example, the lead-in to the  news story reads (bold, my emphasis):

“The health of babies born in deprived areas could be damaged for the rest of their lives long before they have even left the womb, according to startling research from Scots scientists. They have found stressful conditions experienced by expectant mothers in impoverished areas because of poor lifestyle choices [that] could impact their children’s DNA – leaving them with an increased chance of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life. Genes were found to be affected within the first few weeks of an embryo’s development – meaning some mothers in deprived postcodes could be putting their children at harm without knowing they are pregnant.”

So if you just skim the paper, as most of us do, you’ll gather that babies could be damaged forever by the bad choices of women living in poverty.  The broader social context that contributes to privileged or deprived neighbourhoods is not explored. Instead the media story implicitly  places the responsibility for damage on the shoulders of mothers.

So why do deprived neighbourhoods exist? Is living in one a choice? Is poverty a choice?   This example underlines the potential pitfalls of moving health studies into the media constructs of public opinion without a link to the social issues that underpin inequities and resulting health inequalities.

So we blame women and their choices for the damaged DNA of developing babies. We don’t point to employment policies, or childcare policies, or urban planning, or healthcare.  We infer that it’s about what mom does or does not do.

The exploration of inequity and the social structures that contibute to health inequalities need to be centred at the heart of environmental health research stories.  Professor Carol Tannahill, director of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, which funded the research suggests this by saying: “Health inequalities are a reflection of wider inequalities in society. We are now learning that these inequalities have direct epigenetic effects. If we are going to improve health in Scotland, we need to keep a focus on action to address poverty and regenerate poorer neighbourhoods, and to support all children to have a good start in life.” Unfortunately, this statement comes at the end of the article.

News about the broader social causes of chronic poverty and neighbourhood deprivation may not be sexy but twisting research into a tale of poor women damaging their babies through bad choices fuels misunderstanding, prejudice, fear, blame and guilt – a major price to pay to push pulp and paper rags.

Tara ZupancicTara Zupancic is the Associate Director of The Centre for Environmental Health Equity.