Autonomy and Interconnectedness

The family is more interconnected biologically than most people realize. An article published in Scientific American (Dec. 4, 2012), carries a most startling title: “Scientists Discover Children’s Cells Living in Mother’s Brains: The connection between mother and child is deeper than thought”. In this report, author Robert Martone discusses “microchimerism,” a fascinating phenomenon that is a burgeoning new field of scientific inquiry and also “a reminder of our interconnectedness”.

The term “microchimerism” is derived from the fire-breathing Chimera of Greek mythology that was part serpent, part lion, and part goat. A chimera has come to be known as any creature that is a mixture of more than one being. Microchimerism refers to a condition in which this phenomenon occurs in human beings, though on an exceedingly small scale.

momMicrochimerism in humans was first noticed when cells containing the male “Y” chromosome were detected circulating in the blood and also in the brains of women after pregnancy. Since these cells are genetically male, they could not have been produced by the pregnant mother. This finding offers additional evidence that the child a woman carries in her womb is not simply part of her body. It may be that these fetal cells that migrate to the mother’s brain have a salutary effect on the mother’s well-being. Scientific research reports that there are fewer fetal-derived cells in women who have Alzheimer’s disease, more in those who do not have the disease.

Microchimerism occurs most commonly when fetal cells pass through the placenta and enter the mother’s body. But this transfer is not a one-way street. There is evidence that cells may be transferred from the mother to the infant through breast feeding. A similar exchange of cells may occur between twins in utero. In addition, the cells from an older sibling residing in her mother may find their way back to a younger sibling during the latter’s pregnancy. Also, a mother may retain microchimeric cells from her own mother. Indeed, the family, from a biochemical point of view, is far more interconnected than was formerly believed.

While the impact that microchimera cells have on the body is not entirely clear, studies indicate that microchimeric cells may stimulate the immune system to stem the growth of tumors. Martone reports that “Many more microchimeric cells are found in the blood of healthy women compared to those with breast cancer, for example, suggesting that microchimeric cells can somehow prevent tumor formation.” There is also evidence that, like stem cells, microchimeric cells can repair damaged organs. On the other hand, the presence of such cells may be have certain negative consequence. Much more research needs to be done.

In an article entitled, Microchimerism – “The More, The Merrier” (Harvard Science Review (Dec. 3, 2015), Una Choi reports that “mothers themselves often benefit from increased immune surveillance. Indeed, fetal microchimeric T cells can eradicate malignant host T-cells.” She also points out that microchimeric cells can provide protection against various forms of cancer.

It seems reasonable that the two-in-one flesh intimacy of husband and wife, which includes a profoundly biochemical dimension, would serve as a prototype for cellular intimacies between all the members of the family, including ancestors and descendants. The word “flesh,” as scientists are discerning, is richer in implication than Genesis could have explained to a non-scientific community. It involves microbiology, microchimerism, and the immune system. This interconnectedness does not apply to same-sex relations. Marriage between man and woman, which extends something of its character to all its family members is founded on and springs from a two-in-one flesh intimacy that is distinctive of a heterosexual union.

“We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as singular autonomous individuals,” writes Robert Martone, “and these foreign cells [microchimeric cells] seem to belie that notion” since most people carry remnants of other individuals. We remain individuals, however, although we are not autonomous individuals. We remain unique and interdependent.

Science continues to be a good friend for those who oppose abortion. The relatively new field of microchimerism provides additional proof that the fetus is not merely a part of the mother’s body, that human beings (especially family members) are profoundly interconnected, and that we are not autonomous beings, islands cut off from the mainland. Abortion cannot be the isolated choice of an autonomous individual. Rather, abortion is a form of disconnection. Moreover, it fractures family ties that are beneficial and life-serving in certain ways that we are just beginning to understand.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Articles by Don: