Pre-eclampsia and Parental Sexual Relationship

That’s an interesting idea. It’s known that a woman’s first pregnancy has a higher likelihood of her ending up with pre-eclampsia than in subsequent pregnancies; there is also a higher likelihood of women who are artificially inseminated (meaning, donor sperm, not her husband/boyfriend’s) ending up with pre-eclampsia than women who conceive naturally. So, researchers looked at how long the father and mother slept together, and found that women who have a short sexual relationship with the baby’s father prior to the onset of pregnancy have a higher likelihood of pre-eclampsia — possibly due to repeated exposure to sperm somehow altering or desensitizing the uterus to the “foreign” presence of the baby (with half of the genetic material being maternal, but the other half being paternal, and being contained, in one way or another, in the other sperm that didn’t make it to an egg). Here’s a link to the study’s abstract, and here’s the link to a blog talking about it [the blog links to a website that you can read the full article (not the study itself, but about the study), if you register (which is free)].

One potential confounding problem, is that women who get pregnant by a man without having been in a long-term sexual relationship with him (for the purposes of this study, it’s 6 months or less), may be at higher risk for pre-eclampsia due to other factors — not having the study, I don’t know for sure if they tried to control for all known risk factors for pre-eclampsia; and even if they did, there may be unknown risk factors for it — some underlying health issues, for instance, that may predispose to pre-eclampsia, that may also more likely to be in women who are not in a long-term, stable relationship. Married women have a lower risk for many pregnancy problems, such as preterm birth and infant mortality, so perhaps this is similar.

Also, I wonder if repeated exposure to sperm during pregnancy plays any role in pre-eclampsia. Take, for instance, a couple who gets pregnant soon after their marriage; and they were either not sexually active prior to marriage, or did not give into temptation much prior to it. They’re probably going to (and I speak from personal experience here!), “make up for lost time,” in their early months (unless she is overcome with nausea or something due to the pregnancy), and she may very well have as much, ahem, exposure to his sperm in a short time as others may have over a longer relationship. One couple may have sex only once a week (like, only after Friday-night dates) — or she could get pregnant from a one-night stand; while others may make love every day. I wonder if that was likewise taken into account — it’s one thing to say, “We started sleeping together three months ago,” and it’s another to document X number of encounters in that span of 3, 6, or 12 months. [They mention “total number of semen exposures” in the abstract, when speaking of SGA (small for gestational age) babies, but again, without the study, I don’t know if they wrote down every woman’s history, or if they took an average, or what.] Some men turn tail and run when the woman tells him she’s pregnant, so there might be a difference between a married couple getting pregnant a month or two into their sexual relationship and continuing it through pregnancy, and a similar couple getting pregnant a month or two into their sexual relationship and not continuing the relationship (for whatever reason). I wonder if there would be a large enough population of women becoming pregnant by artificial insemination to participate in a trial like this — the study arms could be women in long-term sexual relationships prior to pregnancy (in other words, they have multiple exposures to the semen of the father of the baby), women in short-term sexual relationships prior to pregnancy (perhaps separated by whether the relationship continues during pregnancy or not), women in long-term sexual relationships prior to pregnancy, but not with the father of the baby (artificial insemination by another man due to partner’s low sperm count), and women with no heterosexual relationships at the time of pregnancy (artificial insemination as a single woman or a lesbian).

However, even women in long-term relationships can and do end up with pre-eclampsia, so even if being in a stable marriage reduces your risk of pre-eclampsia, it does not totally prevent it.

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10 Responses

  1. Very, very interesting ideas.

  2. hehehe… my husband and I fit into your first “for instance”… our baby was conceived right before our three-month wedding anniversary, we had been abstinent before marriage and were indeed, um, taking advantage of our newfound freedom. 🙂 However, I attributed my healthy pregnancy so far to good preconception health and continued good prenatal nutrition and exercise. But maybe taking further advantage of finding out we no longer needed to worry about birth control was a factor as well. Interesting study.

  3. Interesting stuff but some of the info is not necessarily new. When looking at risk factors, one considers a new partner as a risk factor due to the potential ‘reaction’ to the sperm. Other risk factors include very young moms, very less young moms (over the age of 35), pre-existing history of hypertension, history of diabetes, history of pre-eclampsia with a previous pregnancy.

    • I remember hearing about a possible link between these several years ago on one of my hard-core email lists, and thought, “Yeah, right! You can hear anything!” So I was surprised to see that this wasn’t one of those way-out things, but could be true. It still seems odd to me that such a thing is possible, but (just as I was telling somebody the other day) just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s not so.

  4. Very interesting. I always thought we looked at new partners of multips and PIH. At least that was my understanding. Anyhow, interesting stuff…I applaud you!

  5. So glad I never got PIH or preclampsia….Looks like it is miserable.

  6. If the theory of genetic exposure is true, then women who have a donor egg pregnancy should be at extra risk for pre-eclampsia too compared to women who do regular IVF. Is there any data that shows this to be true? I have never heard that there is ANY increased risk of pre-eclampsia associated specifically with donor egg.

    • That may be something to consider as well. Whether the woman is a surrogate for another couple entirely, or accepts a donor egg and/or sperm, there may be some increased risk for pre-eclampsia. I do not know if there have been any studies on this topic at all. It does seem like I’ve heard that women who need infertility treatments tend to have higher pregnancy problems (things like preterm birth and so forth), but it would be extremely difficult to determine if these problems were due to the specific type of infertility treatment they needed in order to become pregnant (i.e., donor eggs and/or donor sperm vs. their own eggs and/or their own husband’s sperm vs. medication to get them to ovulate vs. GIFT vs. who-knows-what other treatments may exist), because there are multiple factors involved in 1) why the woman needs ART and 2) what causes problems during pregnancy. It might be a good study to look at surrogate mothers — women who carry other people’s babies, which would definitely be “donor eggs/sperm” as far as the surrogate’s body is concerned — women who would be generally in good health and have no known problems that would predispose them to these poor/negative pregnancy outcomes vs. women who participate in embryo adoption and/or women who become pregnant with a baby from the egg of another woman and the sperm of a man who is not her husband.

      Ah, technology has a way of making formerly clear things exceedingly murky, no? 🙂

  7. very interesting. Posting comment backwards as I am NOW going to go read up on those studies… 🙂

  8. I found this interesting – my sister in law recently had a baby and had pre-eclampsia… she’s been with her husband for 8 years and this is her second baby. Definitely comes under the ‘however’ part of your post!

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