TIME Health Care

Planned Parenthood Protesters Rally Across the Country

Protesters held signs reading 'Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts'

Protesters gathered at 320 Planned Parenthood clinics around the country on Saturday calling for the end to federal funding for the health care provider.

The Washington Post reports the protesters held signs reading ‘Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts’ and participated in prayers and chants.

Controversy over the organization, which provides health services including abortion, erupted recently when undercover videos by anti-abortion activists purported to show Planned Parenthood personnel engaging in illegal activity and selling fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood has denied the allegations, arguing the videos were heavily edited and taken out of context.

MORE: Why We Still Need Fetal-Tissue Research

In a statement, Planned Parenthood vice president Eric Ferrero said, “These rallies are meant to intimidate and harass our patients, who rely on our nonprofit health centers for basic, preventive health care.”

[Washington Post]

TIME Reproductive Health

Premature Births Linked to Certain Bacteria

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Phil Schofield—Getty Images/Photographer's Choice

One of the contributors to preterm birth may be the myriad communities of microscopic residents living in mom

We know that microbes are everywhere, coating door handles, our cell phones, even blanketing our skin. Now researchers report that some of them may provide clues about why certain babies are born prematurely.

In the most complete look yet at how the microbes that live within us—most of them the good, non-disease-causing kind—change during pregnancy, scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that there may be a particular profile of bacteria residing in the vagina that is associated with a higher risk of preterm birth.

Dr. David Relman, professor of medicine at Stanford University and chief of infectious diseases at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto, and his colleagues obtained samples of microbes from 49 pregnant women from four different body sites — the vagina, the gut, the saliva and the tooth and gum line. The samples were collected weekly throughout their pregnancies, and then monthly for a year after they gave birth. The database allowed Relman and his team to look for any changes in the makeup of the bacteria that were present in these areas as the pregnancy progressed and then after delivery.

MORE: Your Diet May Be Causing Your Urinary Tract Infections

Overall, they found that pregnant women did not differ from women who weren’t pregnant in terms of the types of bacteria they harbored — most fell into one of five common profiles, four of which include high proportions of Lactobacillus, a helpful bacterium that produces vitamin K and breaks down the lactose in diary products. That was a bit of a surprise, given the dramatic hormonal and metabolic changes that occur with conception and gestation, says Relman. But he notes that while the members of the communities may be the same, what they do, and the factors they release (which he couldn’t analyze in this particular study) may change with pregnancy .

MORE: Here’s How Many Bacteria Spread Through One Kiss

But they did notice some bacterial similarities in the women who has a preterm birth. Women with this profile housed a more diverse array of bacterial species, including Gardnerella and Ureaplasma. While these don’t normally cause disease, they have been associated with conditions such as bacterial vaginosis, an infection of the vagina, and inflammation of the urethra in men.

Exactly why or how the presence of these species, and the relative lack of Lactobacillus, are linked to the higher rate of preterm birth isn’t clear yet. But the findings confirm other studies that have linked the presence of more some species to premature birth. Gregory Buck, director of the center for the study of biological complexity at Virginia Commonwealth University and member of the Vaginal Microbiome Consortium funded by the National Institutes of Health, notes that certain racial and ethnic groups, such as African-Americans, tend to have more diverse microbiota, and that preterm births are more common in these populations than among Caucasians. But, he notes, these are only pieces of the bigger picture of how the bacteria that live within us affect our health. “We have a lot of questions, and I don’t think the answers are all there yet but we are working on it,” he says.

Relman says that the documentation of which bacteria are present throughout pregnancy is an important step toward answering those questions. “It is important to know who is there, what their names are,” he says. “But that’s only a small part of the story. We also want to know what they are doing, with whom they are doing it, and how they are doing the things they’re doing.”

MORE: Probiotics Primer: What Science Says About Using Bacteria to Treat Disease

Ultimately, the goal is to use that information to better predict which women might be at higher risk of having a preterm birth. And if the role of microbes is strong enough, it may be possible to even intervene with antibiotics or probiotics to adjust the composition of the microbial communities. “The Holy Grail is to find some kind of intervention to predict and prevent preterm birth,” says Buck. “But there is a lot of ground to cross between now and then, so it’s hard to say exactly what that intervention might be.”

Relman may have some of the tools to answer that question: from this study, his group collected more than 100,000 samples that they hope will form the basis of future studies to better understand how the invisible residents that populate the vagina, gut and oral cavities might be influencing pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes.

TIME Reproductive Health

Activists Release Second Video Slamming Planned Parenthood Fetal Tissue Donations

The Center for Medical Progress is criticizing Planned Parenthood in a new video

The group that accused Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue for medical research released a second secretly taped video on Tuesday, claiming to show a doctor from the national reproductive health nonprofit discussing the issue.

The edited eight-minute video, released by anti-abortion activists at the Center for Medical Progress, shows two unseen people posing as representatives of a fetal tissue procurement company and speaking with Dr. Mary Gatter, a member of Planned Parenthood’s Medical Directors’ Council. The video, reportedly shot on Feb. 6 of this year, appears to show Gatter and the representatives discussing the price of fetal tissue.

Planned Parenthood has acknowledged donating fetal tissue to researchers following abortions but has denied receiving any payments beyond reimbursement for its costs, which is legal.

The Center for Medical Progress alleges that the video the group released Tuesday shows Gatter “haggling” over the price of the fetal tissue.

“The money is not the important thing for me,” Gatter said in the video, according to the Center for Medical Progress. “But it has to be big enough that it makes it worthwhile for me.”

Planned Parenthood released a statement condemning the video as “highly edited” and calling the activists who filmed it “widely discredited.”

“What the video released today shows is a Planned Parenthood medical provider, who has dedicated her career to ensuring that women have access to the best health care, stating over and over again that she follows all laws and medical standards,” Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood of America, said in a statement. “The video was heavily edited in attempt to support false and outrageous claims, but the fact remains that there is nothing in these videos to suggest any violation of law or improper activity.”

Tuesday’s video follows an initial one released by the Center for Medical Progress on July 14, which drew widespread attention to Planned Parenthood’s longtime practice of donating fetal tissue to scientists for research. Republican presidential contenders called for an investigation into Planned Parenthood’s practices, but many in the medical community say fetal tissue research is both legal and important.

TIME Reproductive Health

Why We Still Need Fetal-Tissue Research

Planned Parenthood President Feldt
Mario Tama—Getty Images

Two sting videos that claim to implicate Planned Parenthood in the illegal practice to selling fetal tissue for a profit prompted a Congressional investigation of the organization. But it doesn’t mean that research on fetal tissue is wrong. Or that it should be stopped.

The first video released in mid-July that was secretly made by the Center for Medical Progress, a group that includes well known anti-abortion activists, centered around one question: What happens to the fetuses that result from abortions performed at Planned Parenthood? A second surreptitiously filmed video by the same group was released Tuesday. Its central question: Whether Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of such tissue. (The group insists it does not.)

Fetal tissue is valuable for medical research; the National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on fetal research in 2014, and fetal tissue has contributed to vaccines for polio, rubella and chicken pox. While recent efforts to transplant fetal tissue to treat conditions like Parkinson’s haven’t been as consistently successful, it’s still critical to scientific progress.

In the video, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services, notes that the fees Planned Parenthood charges are within laws that govern fetal tissue procurement; the fees cover the expenses of handling, storing and shipping the material, not for the material itself. But in calling for the Congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood’s practices, House Speaker John Boehner said: “When an organization monetizes an unborn child — and with the cavalier attitude portrayed in this horrific video — we must all act.”

But there’s a blurring of the ethical and political lines here that is both intentional — and intentionally misleading. It’s one that’s always shadowed anything involving fetal tissue in this country. Fetal tissue research was initially allowed under specific conditions and approval by a government Ethics Advisory Board (EAB). During the 1980s, however, as controversy over the source of the fetal tissue — mostly abortions, and primarily elective ones — became increasingly politicized, a moratorium was placed on fetal tissue studies, and the EAB was disbanded. The restriction was lifted in 1993, but the work continued to be a challenge.

The ethical and political conflicts erupted again in 1998, when researchers studying excess IVF embryos and fetuses from elective abortions made breakthroughs in understanding stem cells, the pre-cells of everything that develops in the human body. The promise represented by these stem cells, which because of their developmental potential can possibly be manipulated to replace diseased or ailing cells, raised anew the questions of whether studying tissues from unused embryos and aborted fetuses was ethically — and politically — acceptable.

MORE: Why Planned Parenthood Provides Fetal Cells to Scientists

The resulting debate hampered stem cell research in the U.S. for nearly a decade, after the George W. Bush Administration prevented federal research money from being used to study excess embryos that couples had donated after IVF. Researchers wanting to pursue this work had to find private funding or leave the country, which some did. President Obama lifted the restriction in 2009 — and now, the controversy has erupted again. And as in times past, science is getting muddied by politics.

“This video is primarily aimed not at fetal tissue research but at Planned Parenthood,” says David Magnus, director of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics. “I don’t think this is about the use of tissue that is already discarded. I think it’s about abortion itself. The fact that it’s not clear whether there is any actual problem in terms of [Planned Parenthood’s] behavior highlights the fact that this is politically motivated.” Several Republican presidential candidates have also criticized Planned Parenthood’s practices, invoking the organization’s “disregard for the culture of life” and it’s “penchant for profiting off the tragedy of a destroyed human life.”

There’s no evidence on the video that Planned Parenthood makes a profit from fetal tissue. Nucatola is recorded as saying the organization pays anywhere from $30 to $100 per specimen, and that those fees cover administrative and handling costs, not the cost of the tissue itself. (Those costs are far lower than what other companies that broker exchange of tissues from hospitals and abortion clinics to those who want to study them charge.)

Women who decide to have abortions are asked after they make their decision about whether they want to donate the fetus to research. But not every woman is even given the choice. Similar to marijuana laws, in which there is a disconnect between federal and state policies governing its legality, federal law allows donation of fetal tissue if there is no payment involved, and it doesn’t influence the woman’s decision to have an abortion, while state policies may differ.

“State and local policies, as best I can tell, are patchwork, and there is no consistency across states with regard to how [fetal] tissues are used, whether or not they are allowed to be used, etcetera,” says Debra Mathews, assistant director for science programs at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. According to the Guttmacher Institute, six states currently prohibit fetal tissue research on aborted fetuses; three states have introduced similar statues that were struck down. And adding to the confusion, some states prohibit experimentation on “live” fetuses, attempting to make distinctions between the state of the fetus following the procedure.

Such opaque policies, and the highly contentious nature of discussing anything involving fetuses, makes it nearly impossible to fully inform women and discuss their choices in an objective way. With embryonic stem cell research, which involves use of embryos that couples donate for research, Mathews notes that there were discussions about the ethical and moral questions involved. “I don’t know that we have had robust conversations about fetal tissue,” she says. “It’s very difficult to talk about. Abortion politics in this country make it very difficult to have discussions about the use of these tissues.”

And that’s led to a situation that’s far from open when it comes to the fate of fetal tissue from abortions. “There is important research, good research, involving fetal tissues,” says Mathews. “But we have not been transparent about it. In so far as this increases the transparency, and helps us to have a conversation about the research being done, and folks are following the rules that do exist, I think that’s important.”

MORE: Here’s What Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards Had to Say to David Koch

That may be nearly impossible, however, if conservative politicians continue to corral abortion positions and fetal research positions into the same ethical pen. Magnus notes that those opposed to abortion can still support fetal tissue research, and that the two stances aren’t as mutually exclusive from an ethical perspective. “The analogy is often made of organ procurement. ‘I’m not in favor of car accidents or people shooting each other. But if tragedies happen, and somebody is shot or there is a car accident, then being able to have something good come out of that is seen largely as a good thing.’”

One question the Congressional investigation will consider is whether the decision to donate the tissue influences the way in which abortions are performed at Planned Parenthood — if it does, that too is unlawful. But it would only be unethical if it compromises the health of the woman in any way. In the video, Nucatola discusses the fact that the way the abortion is performed should be the same for every woman, regardless of whether she agreed to donate the fetal tissue or not. But she does admit that “some people will actually try to change the presentation [of the fetus]” and that “you’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, …we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part…and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”

Planned Parenthood’s president Cecile Richards issued an apology for the tone of the discussion, acknowledging that “This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements.”

But Richards defends the way that Planned Parenthood performs abortions as ethical and legal. “Our donation programs, like any other high-quality health care providers, follows all laws and ethical guidelines. [Women and families’] commitment to life-saving research, developing treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is important and compassionate. And it should be respected, not attacked,” she said in a video responding to the allegations.

But as long as the dialogue about the science and the medical potential of fetal research is entwined in the political debate over abortion, that respect — and the lives that can potentially be saved from these studies — will be hard to come by.

TIME Reproductive Health

How Ricki Lake’s Proposed Birth Control Documentary Is Anti-Woman

Helping Hand Mother's Day Luncheon Honoring Ricki Lake
Imeh Akpanudosen—Getty Images Ricki Lake attends the Helping Hand Mother's Day Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., on on May 11, 2015.

Dr. Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician gynecologist and writes at The Skeptical OB.

Opposition to the Pill is opposition to women’s emancipation

They called it the birth control pill to signal its primary purpose, but it would have been apt to call it the equality pill.

Hormonal birth control, first available only as a pill and now in a variety of forms, is arguably the single most important technological innovation in the emancipation of women.

And Ricki Lake opposes it.

Lake, who became the celebrity avatar of the home birth movement with her movie The Business of Being Born, is embarking on a new documentary based on Holly Grigg-Spall’s book Sweetening the Pill.

Grigg-Spall claims:

Depression, anxiety, paranoia, rage, panic attacks — just a few of the effects of the Pill on half of the over 80% of women who pop these tablets during their lifetimes. When the Pill was released, it was thought that women would not submit to taking a medication each day when they were not sick. Now the Pill is making women sick. However, there are a growing number of women looking for non-hormonal alternatives for preventing pregnancy. In a bid to spark the backlash against hormonal contraceptives, this book asks: Why can’t we criticize the Pill?

How did Lake, who advocates women’s empowerment by taking childbirth out of hospitals and returning it to the home, come to criticize what is arguably the greatest source of women’s empowerment of all time, as well as a tremendous boon to women’s health?

Surprisingly, the path is rather straightforward. She’s part of a natural parenting movement that is anti-hospital birth, anti-epidural and anti-formula — technological innovations that have made the legal, political and especially the economic liberation of women possible. Opposition to the Pill is the next logical step of that philosophy.

For most of human history, women have been reduced to slaves to their biology.

Childbirth is inherently dangerous and has always been a major cause of death for young women. Hospital birth changed that.

Childbirth is routinely agonizing and has always been a source of tremendous fear and suffering. Epidurals changed that.

Breastfeeding bound women to the home and posed serious health problems for babies of mothers who couldn’t produce enough milk and turned to unsafe supplements. Infant formula changed that.

But the single biggest factor in women’s enslavement to their biology has been the inability to control their fertility — blighting sexual enjoyment, imposing tremendous economic hardship of unwanted children, and bringing death to young mothers who agonized over being torn from their older children. The Pill changed that.

Yes, the Pill has side effects, but they are nothing compared to the side effects of pregnancy or abortion. Lake is apparently horrified that in rare cases, the Pill can lead to blood clots, and possibly death. She conveniently elides the fact that pregnancy also can lead to blood clots and death, as well as pre-eclampsia, hemorrhage and complications of pre-existing medical conditions. It’s worse than disingenuous to bemoan the Pill as a cause of death when pregnancy has a much higher death rate than the Pill, and the Pill prevents pregnancy.

The Pill isn’t simply a contraceptive; it improves women’s health in other ways. It regulates irregular menstrual cycles, leading to less blood loss as well as a reduced risk of endometrial cancer and precancerous lesions. It controls endometriosis, a painful condition that afflicts many women. Moreover, long term use of the Pill appears to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

The technology of the 20th Century — hospital birth, epidurals, infant formula and especially the Pill — freed women from being slaves to their biology.

Opposition to the birth control pill is opposition to women’s emancipation.

It’s bad science, it’s anti-feminist, and it will kill women.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Aging

This Is When Women Using IVF Should Consider Donor Eggs

The latest study says success rates decline considerably after this age

In a report presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, researchers provided some much-needed information that they hope will help couples using IVF to make more informed decisions about how best to use the reproductive technology.

Infertility increases with age, and while there are many reasons why couples have a hard time conceiving, one important contribution is the quality of the woman’s eggs. Because women are born with all of the eggs they use throughout their lifetime, the older the eggs are, the more vulnerable they are to developing genetic and other abnormalities that make them weaker candidates for getting fertilized by sperm and developing into a healthy baby.

But at what age does this process truly decline? Most reproductive data shows that live birth rates start to decline when the woman reaches 35, so Dr. Marta Devesa from the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Women’s Health Dexeus in Barcelona, Spain and her colleagues decided to analyze birth rates by age and whether women used fresh or frozen embryos in their IVF cycle. They found that the cumulative live birth rate—which includes every transfer of an embryo from a single stimulation cycle (most women produce multiple eggs and many of these are fertilized to become embryos, one of which is usually transferred to the womb and the rest of which are frozen for future transfer)—dropped with age.

MORE: Exclusive: Meet the World’s First Baby Born With an Assist from Stem Cells

But they also learned that the live birth rate was really driven by the first transfer of the fresh embryo, and wasn’t significantly increased by transferring additional frozen embryos if the first transfer didn’t result in a pregnancy. In other words, the first, fresh embryo provides the best chance for pregnancy, particularly in women age 42 or older. “The benefit from the frozen embryos is very limited,” says Devesa.

The findings don’t suggest that freezing embryos isn’t worth the effort or the cost, however. For women ages 38-39, the extra benefit from transferring frozen embryos a live birth was 13%; for women ages 40-41, 9%, and for women 42-43, 2%. For women 42 years or older, the frozen embryos only added a 1% increased chance of a live birth. For them, their chances of pregnancy may be higher with a donor egg.

The number of embryos may also be an indicator of a couple’s chances of having a baby. “If we have more embryos to freeze, the live birth rate from the fresh embryo is significantly higher than if we didn’t have any embryos to freeze,” she says. “Why? Because more embryos means we have a better chance of selecting the best embryo.”

The findings, she hopes, will help doctors and patients to better assess their chances of pregnancy and provide more accurate information for couples about whether they should continue with IVF using their own eggs and sperm and when they should consider using donor eggs. While each couple decides on how they want to proceed with IVF, with the current findings, “at least we can give them real expectations about their chances of a live birth, so they can manage their expectations correctly and properly,” Devesa says.

TIME medicine

Exclusive: Meet the World’s First Baby Born With an Assist from Stem Cells

This newborn is the first baby in the world born using a breakthrough IVF treatment

Doctors in Canada have begun a new chapter in medical history, delivering the first in a wave of babies expected to be born this summer through a technique that some experts think can dramatically improve the success rate of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Now 22 days old, Zain Rajani was born through a new method that relies on the discovery that women have, in their own ovaries, a possible solution to infertility caused by poor egg quality. Pristine stem cells of healthy, yet-to-be developed eggs that can help make a woman’s older eggs act young again. Unlike other kinds of stem cells, which have the ability to develop into any kind of cell in the body, including cancerous ones, these precursor cells can only form eggs.

In May 2014, Zain’s mother, Natasha Rajani, now 34, had a small sliver of her ovarian tissue removed in a quick laproscopic procedure at First Steps Fertility in Toronto, Canada, where she lives. Scientists from OvaScience, the fertility company that is providing Augment, then identified and removed the egg stem cells and purified them to extract their mitochondria.

Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, a molecular battery that energizes everything a cell does. Adding the mitochondria from these egg precursor cells to Natasha’s poor-quality eggs and her husband Omar’s sperm dramatically improved their IVF results. In the Rajanis’ first traditional-IVF attempt, Natasha produced 15 eggs, but only four were fertilized—just one of those matured to the point were Natasha’s doctor felt comfortable transferring it. “I knew it wasn’t the best-quality embryo, but it was what she had,” says. Dr. Marjorie Dixon, of First Steps Fertility.

With Augment, the Rajanis produced four embryos, two of which have been frozen should the couple decide to have more children. Another one became baby Zain.

It’s not currently available in the U.S., since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the process of introducing mitochondria a form of gene therapy, which it regulates. So far, some three dozen women in four countries have tried the technique, and eight are currently pregnant. All of the women have had at least one unsuccessful cycle of IVF; some have had as many as seven.

“We could be on the cusp of something incredibly important,” says Dr. Owen Davis, president of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “Something that is really going to pan out to be revolutionary.”

The Next Big Thing in IVF

The technique is indeed poised to usher in the next big advance in IVF; since the first baby, Louise Brown, was born using the process in 1978, the procedure has changed little. Scientists have made incremental advances in fine-tuning the procedure, but taken together, these improvements have nudged pregnancy rates upward by only a percent or two over the course of 35 years. As it stands, the IVF success rate is about 38% for women in their late 30s and 18% for those in their early 40s. Natasha’s first IVF cycle differed little from the one that produced Brown more than 35 years ago.

Augment emerged from a breakthrough made in 2004 by biologist Jonathan Tilly, then at Harvard Medical School and now chair of biology at Northeastern University. He found that cells scraped from the outer surface of the ovary contain the precursor cells that can provide a more reliable source of energy to older eggs. “The technique addresses a void now in IVF,” says Tilly. “No cell culture can circumvent poor egg quality or an egg that is simply too tired to execute what it is capable of doing. We are taking patients with a zero percent pregnancy rate, patients who have failed IVF because of poor egg quality, and getting them pregnant.”

The Rajanis had tried for four years to get pregnant, turning to fertility drugs, intrauterine insemination, and a naturopath before trying their first attempt at IVF. Natasha became pregnant once, but miscarried a few weeks later. “I tried to remain positive, thinking there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that a baby will be there at the end,” she says of all the misses.

What finally made the difference wasthe population of her own egg stem cells. What makes these cells so enticing to scientists is that they come from the mother herself. Mitochondria contain their own DNA, and in a controversial decision the U.K. government recently approved so-called “three-person babies,” where mitochondrial DNA from a donor is introduced into the egg of a woman with mitochondrial disease. When the egg is then fertilized and results in a live birth, it can raise ethical questions, biological concerns and conflicts about parenthood.

With Augment, the cells used—and their mitochondrial genes—are from the mother’s own ovaries. Still, the FDA requested more studies on the effect of adding mitochondria, even from the mother who provides the egg, to the IVF process. OvaScience plans to conduct 1000 cycles using Augment this year, and generate more data that will help bring the procedure to the U.S.

Because the procedure is so new, some reproductive science experts are skeptical. What’s lacking, they say, is convincing evidence comparing pregnancy rates of women undergoing Augment to those with similar infertility problems who didn’t use the technique. So far, no formal clinical trials have been conducted; the only data on the procedure comes from recent presentations by Dr. Robert Casper of University of Toronto and Dr. Kutluk Oktay from Gen-ART IVF in Ankara, Turkey, both of whom are advisors to OvaScience.

“We’re not yet sure the scientific model has proven what the outcomes would be if you use the mitochondria of a younger egg, or from an egg stem cell,” says Davis of ASRM. “It’s a fascinating concept but we just haven’t seen the studies yet.”

In the world of infertility, however, such data are historically hard to come by. A lack of regulation of most reproductive technologies—the ones that don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA as either drugs, devices or gene therapy—and the dominance of business-minded scientists has rushed new methods to clinics, often before their effectiveness has been fully proven.

Tilly counters doubters with evidence from other species that these cells can do what OvaScience has said they can. Egg precursor cells extracted from ovarian tissue from rats, mice, monkeys, pigs and women, for instance, have developed into immature eggs and, in the case of rats and mice, those eggs have mature and produced viable offspring. “Mitochondria from egg precursors rejuvenate the egg to bring it back to a high quality state,” says Tilly.

That appears to be the case with the Rajanis, and time will tell whether that ends up holding true for the other women trying Augment, too. “We see Zain as a symbol of hope for all couples struggling with infertility,” says Natasha. “While the process is long, emotional and physically draining, there is light at the end of the tunnel—and that light for us is Zain.”

For more on Zain and this new approach for infertility, see the May 18, 2015, issue of TIME.

TIME Reproductive Health

How a Baby Was Born Encased in an Amniotic Sac

Silas Johnson born still in the amniotic sac at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, part of the Maxine Dunitz Children's Health Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Dec. 6th, 2014 in Los Angeles.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Silas Johnson born still in the amniotic sac at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, part of the Maxine Dunitz Children's Health Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Dec. 6th, 2014 in Los Angeles.

The physician was so surprised that he snapped a photo on his phone

Correction appended

Silas Johnson is barely a day old and is already an internet sensation. The Los Angeles infant was born three months early, and was remarkably still completely encased in his amniotic sac, making it appear as if doctors delivered a large bubble with a tiny baby inside.

Johnson was born at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center via C-section, curled in the hallmark fetal position within, and his hands were visible pressing against the clear membrane of the sac. His physician was so surprised by the rare birth that he snapped a photo on his cell phone while his team rushed to ensure that the baby’s breathing and heart rate were normal.

The sac is the baby’s home during gestation, filling with fluid to cushion him during pregnancy. Just before birth, it normally ruptures — the so-called ‘water breaking’ that signals an expectant mom that labor is underway. (In cases where the water doesn’t break, doctors can puncture the sac to release the fluid.) In Cesarean sections like this one, doctors frequently pierce through the sac as they make their incision to remove the baby.

Silas Johnson born still in the amniotic sac with mother Chelsea Philips at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, part of the Maxine Dunitz Children's Health Center at  on Dec. 6th, 2014 in Los Angeles.
Cedars-Sinai Medical CenterSilas Johnson born still in the amniotic sac with mother Chelsea Philips at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, part of the Maxine Dunitz Children’s Health Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Dec. 6th, 2014 in Los Angeles.

In vaginal births, the sac remains in the mother as part of the placenta, and isn’t released until the placenta is removed in the afterbirth. But in some births, parts of the sac follow the baby through the birth canal.

While seemingly unusual, births ‘en caul,’ in which the infant remains entirely inside the sac during the journey through the birth canal, can be intentional, particularly when the baby is premature. Dr. Amos Grunebaum, director of obstetrics at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, purposefully delivers some of his babies in the sac, as a way to protect them during the delivery process. “It protects the baby from being injured; it serves as a cushion around the baby.”

Amniotic sacs and its fluid are connected to the placenta, which provides oxygen to the baby. So as soon as the baby is born, the sac must be ruptured to help the baby breathe.

“There are a lot of myths surrounding en caul births,” says Grunebaum. “There are many, many difference sources in the literature where people think the person delivered that way has certain powers.”Johnson’s mother Chelsea isn’t worried about that, but told CNN after seeing her doctor’s picture that “Silas, you’re a little special baby.”

Correction: This article originally misstated the baby’s last name. It is Johnson.

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TIME Reproductive Health

Beauty Products May Trigger Early Menopause

Pefume bottle
Bogdan Kosanovic—Getty Images

Biology determines when women hit menopause, but exposure to some common household products and pollutants may drive that timing even earlier

Menopause, like puberty, is a reproductive rite of passage, and marks for women the end of their fertility and child-bearing years. But studies show that it’s not just age that can determine when menopause starts — exposure to certain chemicals and pollutants can also play a role.

In one of the most comprehensive looks at possible menopause-disruptors to date, researchers led by Dr. Amber Cooper, from the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis, report in the journal PLOS ONE that such exposure can push menopause up by as much as four years.

Cooper and her team studied 31,575 women enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the government. Every two years, the women were surveyed about various health and nutrition issues, including whether they had begun menopause. At some point between 1999 and 2008, each of the participants also provided at least one blood and urine sample which the scientists analyzed for the presence of various chemicals, including dioxins contained in pesticides, phthalates found in fragrance, plastics, cosmetics and hair spray, plant-derived estrogens, and polychlorinated biphenyls, among others. The researchers found that women with the highest levels of 111 of these chemicals on average had menopause anywhere from 1.9 years to 3.8 years earlier than those with lower levels.

How could Cooper be so certain that the exposure was linked to the early menopause? She and her team conducted other analyses, including one of women closer to menopause, between the ages of 45 and 55 years, and found a similar association. They also found that it wasn’t just exposure, but increasing exposure over time that was also connected to problems with ovarian function, another potential consequence of the chemicals on reproductive health. And when they looked at all of the women in the survey from age 30 years on, those with the highest blood and urine measurements were six times more likely to be menopausal than women with lower readings.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” says Cooper, who stresses that the results don’t prove that exposure to these chemicals causes early menopause, only that the two might be connected somehow. ”We need more longitudinal studies to better understand each of these chemicals.”

Previous studies have linked certain chemicals to disruptions in the reproductive hormones, including estrogen, which can then have unhealthy effects on the heart and bone.

What’s concerning is the fact that with the majority of the chemicals, there isn’t much women can do to reduce their exposure. That’s because each of the compounds have different half lives, or time in which they can linger before completely breaking down. While PCBs have been banned in the U.S. since the 1970s, for example, their long half lives mean people may still be exposed to them in the soil, air and water, and in through animals or other things that have contact with them. Women can try to reduce their exposure to some of these chemicals by using products that do not contain synthetic fragrance—which is listed as “fragrance” or “parfum” and which contains phthalates. Women can also opt for organic beauty products, which would not contain pesticide residues and a number of other chemicals.

Cooper advises her patients to be more aware of their potential sources of exposure, including plastics in food packaging, and perhaps try microwaving only in glass and paper containers. “My goal is not to scare women, but raise awareness and promote future research,” she says.

TIME Reproductive Health

Birth Control Pill Risks May Now Include Brain Cancer

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Raymond Forbes—Getty Images/age fotostock RM

Certain forms of birth control may promote growth of a rare brain tumor

Taking any drug is a matter of weighing the benefits and risks, and when it comes to birth control, women may now have one more factor to consider.

Dr. David Gaist, a neurologist at Odense University Hospital and the University of Southern Denmark, and his colleagues found that women taking hormonal contraceptives — those containing estrogen, progestin or a combination of both — showed higher rates of a rare brain tumor known as glioma. Their results, published Thursday in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, raise questions about the connection between oral contraceptives and brain cancer, but shouldn’t yet be interpreted as a reason to stop taking birth control, says Gaist.

MORE: This Contraceptive Is Linked to a Higher Risk of HIV

Using data from Denmark’s national registries of health records, cancer cases and prescriptions, Gaist zeroed in on the women aged 15 years to 49 years diagnosed with glioma, and then analyzed whether they were prescribed contraceptives and for how long. Overall, women who had used hormonal contraceptives at any point in their lives showed a 50% higher risk of developing the brain tumors compared to those who had not used them. And women who used the birth control for more than five years nearly doubled their risk of the cancer. Still, Gaist says, since gliomas are rare, even a doubling of a rare event is still a small risk.

MORE: Which Birth Control Works Best? (Hint: It’s Not the Pill)

“If you look at women in Denmark aged 15 to 49, about five in 100,000 experience that terrible diagnosis in a year, and that figure includes women on hormonal contraceptives, so it’s a very rare event.”

But he admits he was “a bit surprised” by the results, since previous studies suggested that the sex hormones estrogen and progestin might be protective against the gliomas. But those studies primarily included women past menopause, who self-reported their use of contraceptives. In his study, the women were at the age where they would be taking contraceptives, and the data came directly from medical records and registries and therefore more likely to be accurate.

MORE: Take a Look at History’s Worst Contraceptives for Women

Interestingly, Gaist found that women using progestin-only birth control showed slightly higher risk of developing gliomas. While it’s not clear why, he suspects that obesity may be playing a role. In Denmark, regulations require that doctors avoid prescribing estrogen-based contraceptives to obese women, since estrogen can increase risk of blood clots.

Dr. Santosh Kesari, director of neuro-oncology at University of California San Diego and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, notes that rates of gliomas have not spiked since the introduction of hormonal contraceptives, but agrees that the correlation deserves discussion and more study. “It’s something women should be aware about, but I don’t think there is enough evidence to say don’t use it. But the discussion about this potential risk needs to happen,” he says.

Until more research is done to tease apart how the hormones in contraceptives are influencing cells in the brain, Gaist agrees that there isn’t any reason for women to stop using such birth control methods. “With the present knowledge we have, I would still favor using contraception in eligible women,” he says. “But we need to do more research to get a better handle on the issues.”

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