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Pregnancy should not be a police state

An ordinary person walking out in public, going about their daily business is assumed to be an independent agent. Nobody goes up to them to make insipid comments, pats their belly and tells them to stay away from caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol. But pregnant women experience their daily life quite differently, writes Erin Stewart.

14 November 2010

You’re out shopping. You’re buying new clothes, some CDs or books, or whatever. As you’re walking around, examining the wares of whatever store you’re in, someone comes up to you and pats your stomach.

They didn’t ask to touch you, they just did. And you don’t bother to ask why or report them to the police or anything like that.

This is normal.

Have you ever noticed how pregnant women are constantly poked and prodded? They’re asked for personal information from complete strangers like ‘How do you feel?’ ‘When is it due?’, ‘Will it be a boy or a girl?’ and even ‘How far dilated are you?

Again, somehow, this is completely normal.

Beyond this, it is also normal to police pregnant women in terms of what they put into their body. Smoking is not ok, anything with caffeine in it is not ok, alcohol is not ok, even soft cheeses aren’t ok, according to the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines.

This policing often is done with rather meagre evidence. While it has well been established that smoking is damaging for infants, there is still work to be done on determining what level of alcohol during pregnancy is a dangerous amount.

Indeed, studies show also that Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is most likely develop in the first four weeks of pregnancy – usually before a woman even knows that she’s pregnant!

Caffeine is not a simple case either. Two mugs a day of coffee is deemed to be scientifically acceptable.

In terms of soft cheeses (and other foods women are meant to avoid during pregnancy) it’s interesting to note that the German website for reproductive health states no rules and regulations of this kind. This suggests that the fear of putting certain substances into one’s body is quite culturally specific.

The potential safety issues involved with abstaining from certain substances is not really the point.

The point is the amount of disempowerment that occurs because the entire public seems to take all these (oft times unfounded) regulations to heart.

It’s not only the case that regulatory bodies merely advise women about what’s best for their health and what they need to ensure in order to be a ‘good mother’.

What is of concern is that pregnant women are constantly watched, and as soon as a woman starts showing, it’s no longer okay for her to put whatever she likes into her body, lest those soft cheeses kill that unborn foetus.

On the ABC’s The Drum, Ginger Gorman writes of her and her radio listeners’ experiences of the ‘pregnancy police’. A narrative of commands and orders towards grown women takes place. The story it tells is disempowering.

When a pregnant woman runs to get somewhere quickly, she is told by a stranger that she shouldn’t; when she purchases alcohol for a staff function she is tutted. Not to mention what happens if a pregnant woman is spotted drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee (which may or may not be decaffeinated, who knows?).

Monica Dux writes for The Age that one of her friends was told off by a male colleague for ordering a salad whilst pregnant because of the listeria risk.

There’s a double standard in terms of people being able to look after their own safety. We all know that smoking is bad for you, but it’s rare that anyone would go up to a stranger and tell them to butt it out.

Likewise, there are all sorts of dangers involved with eating certain foods. Fast foods are bad for your heart and eating too much of certain foods can up your chances of all manner of diseases such as cancer and type II diabetes.

But we simply don’t go up to a stranger and tell them to stop enjoying their fabulous buffet dinner on account of the vague risks we read about in some report once.

So why do pregnant women evade our ideas of basic social etiquette? Why is it that people feel obliged to tell women that they are doing the wrong thing and crowd their personal space?

The obvious answer is that she has a baby inside her. That the choices she makes no longer just affects her, it affects the foetus too. She should want the best for her unborn child and should therefore abstain from a whole host of inane things. Otherwise, she is a Bad Mother and her children will grow up and go to jail. Or die.

The problem with that assessment is though that just because she is pregnant doesn’t mean her body is no longer her own. Nor does it mean that strangers in the street own it. Her body is still not a public thing, it is still not ok to randomly touch it, particularly without asking. That’s assault.

Furthermore, at this stage, the foetus is still part of her. It is not a separate entity; it could not survive on its own. It is impossible for a pregnant woman to commit child abuse, when no such child yet exists.

This phenomenon seems to tap into the process of socially guilt-tripping mothers who aren’t ‘doing their best’ for their children.

Every commercial break, one can see ads for cleaning products which say that if you don’t wash your house or your hands in certain ways, your entire family will get sick. There are ads for certain foods that one needs to buy in order to ensure the healthiness of their family.

Heck, there are ads telling mothers that their children won’t leave home if they buy the right air freshener!

Obviously, there is a lot of money in making women fear their convictions in regards to raising children despite that the human race has been raising children fairly well for quite a while now.

So, next time you see a noticeably pregnant person in public and get the urge to comment on their behaviours, don’t. Remember that she is her own person and she can make her own decisions and what happens as a result is really only her business.

There is already enough pressure and anxiety surrounding the whole pregnancy and child-rearing process as it is.

Additionally, don’t touch her. It’s creepy.

Erin Stewart is an associate editor at The Scavenger.



0 #1 Amelia 2010-12-27 04:25
It is a separate entity because it has competing interests with hers.
It's not child abuse until after the child is born, but not because it's part of her (it shares one organ - the placenta, and lives in her body but isn't medically the same entity as the mother), but because it isn't a child yet.
I agree with most of this article. However, it's difficult to say how to treat the issue of drinking, smoking and drug use during pregnancy, which can cause the baby (once it is born) to die or to be born with defects into a life, possibly a short life, of suffering.
"it's her body, she should be able to do what she wants" seems kind of callous once the baby is born and can be counted as a person. Who is responsible for it then?

But generally I do think people are too nosy and pushy with pregnant women. There isn't evidence that one glass of alcohol now and then is going to harm the baby, though too much alcohol at the wrong stages will harm the baby. there is plenty of evidence that smoking will harm the baby, but no hard evidence about how or how much.
I think there has to be some sort of balance between keeping it socially unacceptable to do things that are known to definitely cause harm during pregnancy, and keeping people informed about what those things are, but also letting pregnant women make their own INFORMED choices without being pushy or nosy.

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