Annie Murphy Paul is a journalist whose work makes science more accessible to intelligent general readers. Her latest assignment, a fascinating foray into the world of the fetus, takes on some incredibly personal significance for the author, who embarked on Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives while pregnant herself.

Paul deftly mixes her personal, sometimes guardedly emotional responses to her own pregnancy with insightful interviews with researchers and physicians, offering a nine-chapter tour (one for each month) of what is known and unknown about the fetal environment. Her professional consultations reveal much about the history and current state of prenatal studies, which emerges as an ever-growing scientific discipline with implications far beyond the womb. Fetal health and nutrition receive much focus as Paul conducts her own daily dance with toxicity, increasingly aware that what happens in the womb can be linked to “cancer, asthma, obesity, diabetes, mental illness—even . . . arthritis, osteoporosis, and cognitive decline.”

Enhancing her prenatal environment is Paul’s uppermost daily concern, as she learns that working out apparently makes for a smarter baby, that a mother’s tobacco and alcohol intake are actually more potentially damaging to a fetus than crack cocaine, and that a fetus’ exterior pre-birth situation can have untold effects (calm is preferred over chaos). More jarringly, Paul recalls historical horror stories such as the effect on fetuses of the drugs thalidomide and DES, while also ruminating on the Brave New World aspects of sex selection, reminding readers of the shocking number of abortions of female fetuses performed in Asia since the advent of easily available ultrasound. (In fact, as her knowledge of the fetus increases, she grapples somewhat with pro-life/pro-choice issues, which makes for some interesting journalistic moments.)

Paul’s inquiries also touch upon tantalizing questions regarding sexual orientation and reveal the statistical facts about the current falling rate of male births. With an eye toward the future, she describes major studies such as Project Viva and the National Children’s Study, which are ever widening the scientific community’s knowledge of prenatal health and its later impact on the individual. “Birth is an ending as well as a beginning,” writes Paul; “it ruptures one relationship, even as it commences another.” Happily, her own pregnancy appears to be an unqualified success, as is her very readable blend of memoir and medical fact-finding.


 

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