Medical science is learning more and more about pregnancy and fetal development. And what they are finding is mind-blowing. We now know that there is a “radical mutuality” in the relationship between the mother and her child in the womb. Both work together to build the placenta. And just as cells from the mother’s body become part of the baby, cells from the baby become permanent parts of the mother.
From an interview in the Catholic magazine Crux with Prof. Kristin Marguerite Collier of the University of Michigan Medical School:
The placenta is the organ through which the mother and prenatal child interface. The placenta is an organ that is attached to the inside of the uterus and connects to the prenatal child through the child’s umbilical cord.
What is not as well known about this organ is that the placenta is the only organ in human biology that is made by two persons, together, in cooperation. The placenta is ‘built’ from tissue that is part from mom, and part from the growing baby. Because of this, the placenta is referred to as a ‘feto-maternal’ organ. It is the only organ made by two people, in cooperation with providence. It is the first time mom and her baby come together, albeit at the cellular level, to do something in cooperation. . . .
In the creation of the placenta, cells from the trophoblast, which are from the embryo, ‘reach down’ towards the mother’s uterine wall while at the same time, the spiral arteries from the mother’s uterus are ‘reaching’ up towards the embryo. This process leads to the creation of the placenta.
The placenta is the only purposely transient organ in humans and unlike the rest of our organs, acts as many organs in one. The placenta functions to eliminate waste, like the kidneys would do, facilitates transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide, like the lungs would do, and provides nutrients, like a GI tract would do. It even has endocrine and immune function. What used to be discarded as just the ‘afterbirth’ is now regarded as a magnificently complex shared organ that supports the formation of the prenatal child.
Even more amazing to me is the phenomenon of “fetomaternal microchimerism,” named after the chimera of Greek mythology, a creature comprised of three different species:
In science, “microchimerism” is the presence of a small population of genetically distinct and separately derived cells within an individual. During pregnancy, small numbers of cells traffic across the placenta. Some of the prenatal child’s cells cross into the mother, and some cells from the mother cross into the prenatal child. The cells from the prenatal child are pluripotent and integrate into tissues in her mother’s body and start functioning like the cells around them. This integration is known as ‘feto-maternal microchimerism’.
The presence of these cells is amazing for several reasons. One is that these cells have been found in various maternal organs and tissues such as the brain, the breast, the thyroid and the skin. These are all organs which in some way are important for the health of both the baby and her mother in relationship. The post-partum phase is when there is need, for example, for lactation. The fetomaternal microchimeric cells have been shown to be important in signaling lactation. These cells have been found in the skin, for example, in Cesarean section incisions where they are helping to produce collagen. Baby is helping mom heal after delivery by the presence of her cells! It would be one thing for these cells to come into the mother and be inert, but is a whole other thing entirely that these cells are active and aid mom for example in helping to produce milk for her baby and helping her heal. These cells may even affect how soon the mother can get pregnant again and therefore can affect spacing of future siblings.
Usually, foreign or ‘other’ cells are detected by the host immune system and are destroyed. The fact that these fetal cells ‘survive’ and then are allowed to integrate into maternal tissue speaks to a ‘cooperation’ between the mother and her child at the level of the cell that parallels that seen in the development of the placenta, suggesting that the physical connection between mom and baby is even deeper and more beautiful than previously thought. Research in fetomaternal microchimerism suggests that the presence of these cells may favorably affect the future risk of malignancy. The presence of these cells in the maternal breast may help protect mom from breast cancer years after the baby’s birth.
To think that a physical presence of the baby in her mother is helping protect her from cancer at the level of the cell, speaks to a radical mutuality at the cellular level that we are just beginning to understand. . . .
The big takeaway is that the science of microchimerism supports the fact that some human beings carry remnants of other humans in their bodies. Thus, we aren’t the singular-autonomous individuals we think of ourselves as being.
I came across another article that said that if the mother suffers organ damage during pregnancy, the baby can send its stem cells to repair the damage! (The article included a link to this medical journal.)
The Crux interviewer, Charles C. Camosy, wanted to bring out the implications for Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Yes, said Prof. Collier–who is a Christian, but not a Catholic–Mary would always have a part of Jesus with her, indeed, as a part of her. But this intimate mutual union is also true, she said, for all mothers. All mothers carry their children with them, on a cellular level, for their whole lives. And just as she has contributed to the formation of the bodies of her children, they have contributed to the formation of hers.
Prof. Collier then makes a startlingly comforting application. Mothers whose children have died, she said, often feel that their children are still with them. We now know that they are.
Illustration via Good Free Photos, Public Domain