Can Mental Illness Be Prevented In The Womb?

Oct 22, 2016

Every day in the United States, millions of expectant mothers take a prenatal vitamin on the advice of their doctor.

The counsel typically comes with physical health in mind: folic acid to help avoid fetal spinal cord problems; iodine to spur healthy brain development; calcium to be bound like molecular Legos into diminutive baby bones.

When Scott Gatz and his husband decided to become fathers several years ago, pursuing parenthood meant finding both an egg donor and a surrogate to help them conceive a baby. Their first round of in vitro fertilization produced seven healthy embryos. One of those embryos was successfully transferred to their surrogate's womb, resulting in their son Matthew, who is now 6-years-old.

While the San Francisco couple feels their family is now complete, they are still in a quandary over what to do with their six remaining embryos — what they call their "maybe babies."

In Puerto Rico the local association of obstetricians and gynecologists has launched a new attack on Zika. Because Zika primarily is a problem for pregnant women, the doctors are trying to reduce the number of pregnant women by offering free contraception across the island to any woman who wants it.

"We have had ... historical barriers to contraception in Puerto Rico for a long long time," says Dr. Nabal Bracero, the driving force behind the initiative and the head of the local chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When you're pregnant, going to the doctors can be exciting. You get to find out if you're having a boy or a girl. Maybe hear the baby's heart beat.

But in southern Africa, many women find out something else.

Allison Groves at American University recently ran a study in a town outside Durban, South Africa. They followed about 1,500 pregnant women. The results left her speechless.

Lindsey McFarland was born without a uterus. So she and her husband, Blake, created their family by adopting three boys. But they always dreamed that she could somehow become pregnant and give birth to a baby.

"We just wanted that experience," Lindsey says. "We wanted that connection."

She longed to feel a baby kick and develop inside her. She wanted the thrill of discovering the sex of the fetus during a routine sonogram. She even wanted to go through morning sickness and labor.

"Congratulations, you're about to have a jentebaby or a guttebarn!"

That's what they'd say to you in Norway if you were expecting to bring a baby girl or a baby boy into the world.

They'd also tell you to put your wallet away. Prenatal care in Norway is completely covered under the publicy-financed national healthcare system. That means expectant mothers pay exactly $0.00 in out-of-pocket fees for medical appointments during and after their pregnancies.

There's something different about the way these babies cry.

That's a realization that hit me after spending day after day with babies in Brazil who were born to mothers who were infected with the Zika virus when they were pregnant.

It's not just that they cry more easily, and longer — which they do. There's also something strange — harsher and more pained — about the cries of many of these babies.

newborn baby
Flickr Photo/Bridget Coila (CC BY SA 2.0)/

Bill Radke speaks with retired doula Penny Simkin about how Swedish Medical Center hopes to lower the rate of cesarean sections by hiring 27 doulas as staff members. Research has shown that doulas can reduce the number of c-sections by 50 percent. Swedish is the first hospital in Washington to try this approach.  

You wouldn't think of calling a mosquito "man's best friend." But that's the nickname that biologist Denise Valle uses for Aedes aegypti, the species that's been spreading the Zika virus in Brazil and many other countries in Latin America.

I think "man's best enemy" might be better.

The thing is, this mosquito likes to live near humans.

How safe is it in the United States to be born someplace other than a hospital? The question has long been the focus of emotional debate and conflicting information. Now, Oregon scientists and health workers who deliver babies have some research evidence that sheds a bit more light.

Nadiri, a 19-year-old gorilla at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, is pregnant. Her due date is Thursday, Nov. 19.
Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Zookeepers have noticed that Nadiri, a gorilla at the Woodland Park Zoo, has been restless at night and walking around more. For two weeks, they’ve watched her on closed-circuit television, waiting for signals that her baby is ready to arrive.

KUOW Photo/Nick Danielson

The stories from the labor and delivery ward at UW Medical Center in Seattle are often told breathlessly.

A nurse tells of a pregnant woman who arrived at the hospital brain dead after being airlifted from Eastern Washington. She was kept alive as nurses pumped her breasts to feed her baby, who had been delivered by cesarean section.

Sarah Meyer (right), a midwife, was recently hired by Whidbey Island General Hospital, as part of a plan to reduce the hospital's C-section rate.
Gary Taylor/Whidbey Island General Hospital

In Coupeville, Washington, Sarah Meyer is pressing a fetal Doppler on Christine Meyer’s belly to check the baby’s heart rate.

Meyer, no relation to Christine, then checks her ankles for swelling. Christine is 25, and this is her first baby. She says she chose Whidbey General because the hospital offers what she was looking for – a midwife.

Emily Cameron, left, her husband and their five children. Her first-born was delivered by C-section at 37 weeks, which she believes was unnecessary.
Courtesy Emily Cameron

Public health officials across the U.S. say the number of cesarean sections being performed has gotten way out of hand. It's a life-saving surgery for complicated births, but today nearly a third of pregnancies end up as a C-section.

Family photo

It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday at Valley Hospital and Medical Center in Spokane, and Dr. Nathan Meltzer has already had a very long day.

He has one mother in labor. She’s been there for more than 12 hours.