Sarah Dubow's Ourselves Unborn overlooks the actual fetus.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 27 2010 8:26 AM

Fetal Monitors

A history of ideas about the fetus overlooks the actual unborn baby.

(Continued from Page 1)

The authority we're willing to grant science when it speaks about the fetus is an especially salient matter now, as an emerging field known as the developmental origins of health and disease begins to reshape once again our understanding of the fetus, the pregnant woman, and the relation between them. This burgeoning science has amassed considerable evidence that our health and well-being throughout life are significantly affected by the conditions we experienced in the womb. Dubow doesn't address this fledgling discipline in Ourselves Unborn, but one imagines that she would view it as just another tale we're told about the fetus, one ripe with possibilities for coercion and blame directed at pregnant women.

That would indeed be part of the truth. The interpretation of DOHaD findings, and perhaps even the science itself, is inevitably colored by our society's current preoccupations: with reducing risk, with maintaining social status, with producing the "perfect" child. But it is also true that science can often hold itself above the fray long enough to generate new knowledge, knowledge which in time alters our attitudes along with our bodies. There's a reason we accord science such outsized authority: Imperfect though it may be, it makes things happen, and sometimes it makes things better. A fetus is an idea, but it's also a physical being, describable and understandable in scientific terms—and one that becomes, when the screen is at last removed, a baby.

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Annie Murphy Paul is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.