The Politics Of Fetal Cells Invading Mummy Bodies

BoingBoing has a fascinating summary of how fetal cells invade their mother's host body and get up to all kinds of shenanigans: some good, some bad.

Research describing the fetal cell invasion has peppered the popular press in recent years, and it's a fascinating story. The cells might protect mothers from cancer, heal their hearts, and help in wound healing. Or, the cells might actually be lowering mothers' immune defenses and causing cancer. Or both!

What's possibly even more interesting is the political banter these stories ignite.

If you happen to be a mother, the fact that you carry around cells from all your biological babies, and that those cells might be helping you fight disease might make you feel warm and fuzzy about this profound connection with your children. It's a special state of being for mummies only. Jena Pincott, the author of the BoingBoing post, which is an excerpt of her book Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy, writes objectively on the subject:

One theory is that this "otherness" stimulates the mother's immune system just enough to help keep malignant cells in check. The more fetal cells there are in a woman's body, the less active are autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

But how one responds to the research can be subjective. The Kansas for Life blog spins the research for their own purposes. But if you happen to not be a mum, and are tired of mummies talking about the magic of mummyhood, you might choose to emphasise the more sinister side of these imparted fetal cells. As one commenter (who's mother status, for the record, is unknown) on BoingBoing writes:

I wasn't taught this in my cancer biology and immunology classes in grad school; rather, it was that pregnancy acts as a mild immunosuppressive to dial down the mother's immune responses and protect the "foreign" foetus... This is why women who have previously had melanomas have higher rates of recurrence or metastasis during or immediately after pregnancy... Unfortunately it's a lot less warm and fuzzy of a theory.

Indeed, Pincott notes that fetal cells have been found in cancers, and might lead to autoimmune diseases like scleroderma and lupus. But readers perceive spin where they will. One more provocative BoingBoing comment:

But don't let that stop the positive spin on the gushy love fest of how great pregnancy is supposed to be for women. Because it's not like there's ever been an agenda surrounding that or anything. Like, ever. And it's not like rampant slanting and emotionally loaded reads of scientific experiments have ever been used as propaganda.

The science is in the early stages, and like many other examples in biological research, the answer will be more complicated than "fetal cells good" or "fetal cells bad." Until then, the politicizing will continue. What an emotional roller coaster ride! First I was feeling pretty sad that since I haven't managed to conceive, I'm vulnerable to unknown diseases that might have been mitigated by my baby's cells. A moment later I was relieved not to have been encroached upon by foreign fetal vermin. And not to have been influenced by those propagandising pregnancy pushers!

Ah, science. You're hardly ever just science.


Image: Shutterstock/ZF

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