Skip to main content

Sins of the Mother: Socio-legal Imaginaries of Epigenetics

This project focuses on ways epigenetics may give rise to legal claims. A field of molecular biology, it raises novel challenges for transgenerational justice.

Dr Ilke Turkmendag's research is ‘Sins of the mother: Socio-legal imaginaries of epigenetics’. It was awarded British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Grant SRG18R1\180531.


Epigenetics is a field of molecular biology. It explains ways medical, nutritional and behavioural experiences influence expression of our genes. It looks at how these changes can be transmitted to subsequent generations. Impact of maternal behaviour on offspring’s health has become a focus of research over the past 20 years.

The findings of this work are entering wider culture and shaping public debate. Claims associated with epigenetics are influencing notions of maternal responsibility towards future generations. They raise novel challenges for law, particularly for transgenerational justice. This study will identify:

  • emerging discourses within epigenetics about maternal effects in the public sphere
  • explore views of legal thinkers and bioethicists about legal relevance of these claims
  • analyse whether claims associated with epigenetics should give rise to legal rights/responsibilities

Project summary

Transgenerational epigenetics studies the inheritance of epigenetic phenomena between generations. It suggests a link between:

  • maternal behaviour and lifestyle during pregnancy and after birth
  • well-being of their children in both early and adult life

Examples include:

  • poor prenatal diet
  • prenatal exposure to domestic violence
  • exposure to maternal distress
  • Caesarean delivery
  • alcohol intake before conception and during pregnancy

These can cause health problems in the offspring. [i]

Many scientific findings in epigenetics are too preliminary. They don't provide a solid evidence base for recommendations to change daily living. They are already influencing policy and practice and inform the legal thinking.

Claims associated with transgenerational epigenetics may provide new litigation and liability under common law.

The epigenetic evidence may be used to support legal claims.[ii]

The intersection of law and epigenetics encompasses a wide range of issues, including:

  • causation of human psychology and behaviour for criminal competencies
  • dilution of liability
  • victim attenuation
  • proving causation
  • legal culpability

Legal commentators have started to discuss ways epigenetics can be relevant to law. They're considering blameworthiness and punishment severity in the context of culpability. [iii]

Some commentators argue epigenetic markers of childhood adversity can be used as evidence in courts. They argue that such evidence should be taken into account. It is also suggested that epigenetic data can be used to create a system of ‘personalised justice’ [iv]. Epigenetics could be well suited to providing a means by which the justice system can quantify severity of the crime committed. It could be used to calibrate the appropriate corresponding sentence. [v]

This study will add theoretical and empirical insights. These will address the novel legal challenges raised by transgenerational epigenetics.

Importance of the project

Successful translation of epigenetics knowledge in practice and policy requires meaningful interaction between:

  • scientists
  • bioethicists
  • social scientists
  • practitioners
  • policymakers
  • legal commentators
  • the public

This is to ensure the benefits of this important field are realised in a responsible manner. This project will facilitate this important process.

Research questions

  1. What are the potential claims associated with epigenetics regarding maternal responsibility towards the health and well-being of future generations?
  2. Could the emerging claims associated with transgenerational epigenetics give rise to ethical obligations, legal rights and responsibilities toward future generations?
  3. What is the best way to address the novel legal and ethical challenges raised by transgenerational epigenetics?


[i] Richardson, S (2015.). ‘Maternal bodies in the postgenomic order: Gender and the explanatory landscape of epigenetics’. In S. Richardson and H. Stevens (Ed.), Postgenomics: Perspectives on Biology after the Genome. Duke University Press.

[ii] Rothstein, M A, Cai, Y., & Marchant, G E (2009). The Ghost in our genes: Legal and ethical implications of epigenetics. Health matrix :19(1):1-62.

[iii] Kolber, A. (2011) The Experiential Future of the Law, Emory Law Journal: 60, 585.

[iv] Wong SH, Happy C et al. (2010). From personalized medicine to personalized justice: the promises of translational pharmacogenomics in the justice system, Pharmacogenomics 11(6), 731-737.

[v] Doci, F & C, Venney  et al (2015). Epigenetics and Law: The quest for justice. 257-277.

More from Newcastle Law School