I picked up Time with trepidation. I'm nearly six months pregnant, and I wasn't sure I wanted to know what Annie Murphy Paul had to tell me in her cover story, "How the first nine months shape the rest of your life." I already had a list of rules to follow: don't eat cold cuts, don't drink alcohol, take a prenatal vitamin every day, don't drink too much caffeine, don't eat soft cheese, don't take medicine if you get sick, don't lie flat on your back, stay active but don't overexert, don't gain too much weight, and get plenty of rest. I worried that reading Paul's findings would only compound my sense that I could and should always do more to protect the life of this child within.
But the article surprised me. It didn't mention rules for pregnant women. Rather, it placed women and their unborn children in the context of a larger community. For example, Paul offers evidence that links air quality not only to the health of a fetus but also to the health of that fetus as a growing child and an adult. Evidence suggests that "exposure to traffic-related air pollution during pregnancy" can be linked "to a host of adverse birth outcomes, including premature delivery, low birth weight and heart malformations" as well as "damage" to DNA that "has been linked to increased cancer risk."
In other words, when as we all contribute to polluted air now, we also contribute to health problems for the next generation. Similarly, pregnant mothers who endure intense stress (and here we aren't talking about having a bad day but the stress caused by warfare or starvation), "give birth to children with a higher risk of schizophrenia." The article, based on Paul's book on the topic, suggests links between fetal health and heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental illness. Paul writes, "Scientists are exploring the possibility that intrauterine conditions influence not only our physical health but also our intelligence, temperament, even our sanity."
At first blush, two potential problems arise. First, the aforementioned "blame the mother" problem. But Paul herself, in a post for The New York Times's Motherlode blog, clarified that most of the factors contributing to negative health outcomes are "collective in nature (food safety, environmental pollution, safety in disaster situations, and so on) and require collective solutions—not more responsibility and blame piled on individual pregnant women for situations they can't possibly rectify on their own."
Second is the problem of biological predestination. Does fetal-origins research suggest that our physical and emotional health is predetermined by the environmental conditions during our gestation? In a New York Times book review, Jerome Groopman quotes Paul on this point: "Prenatal experience doesn't force the individuals down a particular path. At most, it points us in a general direction, and we can take another route if we choose. Imagine water flowing downstream: prenatal influences might dig a canal, so to speak, making it easier for the water to flow one way rather than another."
Paul contends that this research should not be used to provoke maternal guilt or a sense of fatality about health outcomes. But it could be used to prompt reflection on the interconnectedness of life and the responsibility we bear one for another. These findings, at their core, are about relationships, between mother and child, between body, mind and spirit, between self and other, and between human and environment.
For Christians, these findings illuminate how God has designed reality. They demonstrate the bodily nature of our humanity. Judeo-Christian theology holds that we are not disembodied spirits or minds, but rather an interconnected whole. The physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our being are inextricably linked.
Furthermore, while our lives are not predetermined, they are also not the products of autonomous individual decisions. Rather, our lives are bound to one another—to our families, communities, and natural environment. According to Genesis 3, sin has disrupted the harmonious relationships between God, human, and the environment. Yet the work of Jesus Christ has and will undo those ruptures and make his creation whole again (Col. 1:17).
At its core, Annie Murphy Paul's book, and her article for Time, are not about individual women making better choices on behalf of their unborn children. Rather, they are about all of us making choices to bless and restore, to participate in the work of the Spirit of Jesus to make all things new.