The Maternal Imprint: The Contested Science of Maternal-Fetal Effects (Hardcover)

The Maternal Imprint: The Contested Science of Maternal-Fetal Effects By Sarah S. Richardson Cover Image
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Leading gender and science scholar Sarah S. Richardson charts the untold history of the idea that a woman's health and behavior during pregnancy can have long-term effects on her descendants' health and welfare.

The idea that a woman may leave a biological trace on her gestating offspring has long been a commonplace folk intuition and a matter of scientific intrigue, but the form of that idea has changed dramatically over time. Beginning with the advent of modern genetics at the turn of the twentieth century, biomedical scientists dismissed any notion that a mother—except in cases of extreme deprivation or injury—could alter her offspring’s traits. Consensus asserted that a child’s fate was set by a combination of its genes and post-birth upbringing.  

Over the last fifty years, however, this consensus was dismantled, and today, research on the intrauterine environment and its effects on the fetus is emerging as a robust program of study in medicine, public health, psychology, evolutionary biology, and genomics. Collectively, these sciences argue that a woman’s experiences, behaviors, and physiology can have life-altering effects on offspring development. 

Tracing a genealogy of ideas about heredity and maternal-fetal effects, this book offers a critical analysis of conceptual and ethical issues—in particular, the staggering implications for maternal well-being and reproductive autonomy—provoked by the striking rise of epigenetics and fetal origins science in postgenomic biology today.

About the Author

Sarah S. Richardson is professor of the history of science and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. She directs the Harvard GenderSci Lab.

Praise For…

"An outstanding depiction of the mutual constitution of science and society. Cleverly unpacking the complex history of scientific debates on so-called 'maternal impressions' (later, 'maternal effects') on offspring and future generations, author Sarah Richardson unveils the epistemological origins of concepts we take for granted today. . . . The book is an epistemological provocation, a reminder that science is a political enterprise, and an invitation to produce knowledge that empowers women instead of knowledge that makes them solely responsible for our collective future."
— Science

"[A] rigorous academic study... Policymakers, health-care providers, and scientific researchers will want to take note."
— Publishers Weekly

“Sarah Richardson’s book The Maternal Imprint… argues that social assumptions about maternal responsibility lend ideas in this field more credibility than they deserve on the basis of the data. Her argument will be interesting to researchers, pregnant nerds and policymakers.”
— Nature

"Richardson explains and challenges much of what I (and probably you) take for granted about human pregnancy and the role of mothers in fetal development. Richardson
brilliantly confronts notions that some women are 'bad mothers' who imperil the welfare of their offspring by not taking care of themselves sufficiently while pregnant. . . . The Maternal Imprint is a thoroughly researched, amusing, and confronting book that should be essential reading for anyone interested in epigenetics, infant health, and how these interact with race and social class."
— FASEB Journal

"Enlightening. . . . What is particularly compelling about Richardson's approach is that by situating the field’s challenges in a broader social and historical context, we get a sense of why they matter. . . . In the likelihood that epigenetics might be used to explore the long shadow of our current trauma, Richardson's book offers an important lens through which we can regard claims about the role of maternal bodies."
— Lancet

"The inheritance of acquired traits is not a heresy in medicine, but the basis of an enormously productive research program... Richardson puts this research in its historical context and takes a critical look at its basic assumptions, methods and conclusions."
— Archyde

"In this volume, historian and philosopher of science Richardson... provides a historical overview and an analysis of debates, theories, and research about epigenetics and gene expression, spanning from Weismann’s expression of deterministic germ plasma theory in the late 19th century to current epigenetics and theory about the developmental origins of health and disease as articulated in the early 21st century."

"Beliefs about which specific maternal behaviors or experiences have lasting effects on gestating offspring have shifted widely over time. . . . [Richardson] gives this rich history a clearer context in the discussion of reproductive responsibility."
— Harvard Gazette

"Richardson concisely and vividly presents how medical and scientific thinking about the contribution of mothers and fathers to the development of offspring developed. Richardson's thoroughly compelling book . . . shows the ideological complexity of modern science."
— Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

"The Maternal Imprint will be of interest to a trans-disciplinary audience in that it provides a historical critique of science that is well-versed in the scientific claims and attuned to the influence of culture on science. This trans-disciplinary book provides a framework for both biological and social scientists to think about the values and assumptions that have guided their disciplines' perspectives on the maternal body and infant health."
— Metascience

“[Richardson’s] compelling interpretation cleanly cuts through the posited difference between genetics and epigenetics, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ heredity. Far from challenging genetic determinism, epigenetic pregnancy research ‘advances a model of human inheritance and development in which the wider social and physical environment can be seen as heritable and as determinant of future biomedical outcomes.’ Constructions of epigenetics as bridging the gap between social and biological processes resonate widely in STS and gender studies, even among critical scholars; Richardson’s book is a thought-provoking intervention.”
— Isis

"A rich, elegantly argued analysis of the long history of scientific and popular thinking about 'maternal effects' on the fetuses that women gestate, full of well-articulated plunges into the archives of scientific texts and journals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is an important, beautifully researched, and well-written book by an author whose prior works have literally changed their fields."
— Rayna Rapp, New York University

"Richardson reveals that epigenetics is not just the newest cutting-edge, pro-social, plasticity-favoring, anti-genetic, and anti-reductionist field to emerge from modern molecular genetics. Rather, it is also the vector of newly problematic images and social roles that limit women and diminish the status of pregnancy and motherhood, in ways that are disturbingly similar to nineteenth-century societal notions of women's roles. Richardson's exquisitely documented arguments will be compelling to all with an interest in the complex interface of science and society."
— Michael J. Wade, Indiana University

"This is a major contribution from a feminist STS scholar who deftly interweaves scientific, epistemological, and ethical considerations into a tour-de-force book on a topic with implications for mothers, families, and communities."
— Alexandra Minna Stern, author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America

Product Details
ISBN: 9780226544779
ISBN-10: 022654477X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: November 8th, 2021
Pages: 376