Rule 3: Pregnancy does not damage your child

This month, Jennie Bristow picks apart the hectoring advice that is dished out to pregnant women about everything from food and booze to smoking and hair-dye.

Jennie Bristow

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In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month she picks apart the hectoring advice that is dished out to pregnant women about everything from food and booze to smoking and hair-dye.

At last, an honest explanation of why women shouldn’t drink during pregnancy! It’s not because alcohol will harm the baby – it’s because the government thinks that drinking makes you an irresponsible mother.

The UK Department of Health (DH) now advises pregnant women ‘or those trying to conceive’ (I’ll come back to this little conceptual slippage later) to ‘avoid drinking alcohol, and not to get drunk’ (1). Official advice used to indicate that one to two units per week was all right – this is now reserved as a caution for those who have already crossed the moral line from abstinence: ‘Women who do choose to drink, before and during pregnancy, should drink no more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week.’ (2) But the DoH is keen to reassure women who are already pregnant and have followed the earlier advice that they ‘will not have put themselves or their baby at risk’ (3). And the purpose of this change? ‘To provide stronger, consistent advice for the whole of the UK.’ (4)

A pedant might point out that there is nothing consistent about telling women that any drinking in pregnancy puts you on the road to hell, unless you’ve already started on the road to hell or chosen to go down it, in which case you’ll probably be all right so long as you stick within the arbitrary margins (one or two units once or twice a week) prescribed by the government. But pregnant women are less often pedants than they are panickers, and the impact of this latest rule-rewriting will be an intoxication of guilt, worry and resentment. Yet again, the pregnancy police have charged mothers-to-be with poisoning their babies-to-be – and this will do new families infinitely more damage than the odd pint of lager.

Anyone who has ever been pregnant, or indeed is ‘trying to conceive’, will be familiar with the litany of moderations and prohibitions about the food and drink you are supposed to consume within those nine months. From smoking, drinking and drugs to the more nutritious tuna, pate, eggs, liver, peanuts and fresh vegetables, pregnant women are supposed to exercise Constant Vigilance about the dangers of overconsumption of dodgy foods and the potential nasties that lurk beneath even wholesome-looking ones. The list is so random (it now apparently includes hair dye – not eaten, but washed in) that you cannot help but wonder about all the foods that are not on the list, too: that chicken mayonnaise sandwich; those salty crisps; that funny-looking yogurt.

Eating and drinking while pregnant has become a thoroughly disturbing experience, in which things that you once just did without thinking about them become charged with a supernatural significance. You feel you’re always being watched – and while you probably are, the spookiest thing is how you end up watching yourself, floating disembodied above your own lunch wondering how it might affect your baby’s cognitive development or social skills. It’s a kind of pregnancy-induced eating disorder, and it lasts for nine whole months. When added to the heartburn, sickness and taste-and-smell imbalance associated with pregnancy, it’s no surprise that mums-to-be rarely enjoy their meals.

What’s the basis of this food fetish? So far as the science goes, I honestly have no idea – beyond the fact that if you ate nothing at all, your baby would perish with you. It doesn’t really matter, because you end up either following the rules or bending them and feeling terribly guilty. What seems very clear to me is that Constant Vigilance over diet in pregnancy is not motivated by clear evidence of a definite danger coming from this thing or that thing. It’s motivated by an unpalatable mixture of overblown risk-avoidance, mistrust of mothers, and the official promotion of lifestyle conformity.

Just look at the drinking thing. The Big Reason behind not drinking in pregnancy is that this could result in your having a child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) – a condition discovered in 1973, and recognised as meaning that a baby has some types of facial deformity, growth retardation, developmental impairment, and a mother who drank during pregnancy. But as the US sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong points out in her excellent book Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder, FAS is both very rare and not obviously caused simply by drinking (5). For example, ‘only about 5 per cent of children born to alcoholic women have FAS’. So even if you are an alcoholic, your baby has a 95 per cent chance of not getting Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. As Armstrong argues, ‘How can we reconcile this fact with claims that all pregnant women must avoid alcohol?’ We cannot, at least at the level of the science.

And the Department of Health admits this. While busily trying to promote an expanded concept of FAS, known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (presumably, any baby who is a bit funny-looking born to any mother who drinks even a little bit), to get around the rarity of FAS and to promote the notion of universal risk through drinking, the DoH admits that it has not changed its guidance because of new evidence. As one news report puts it: ‘The Department of Health said the revision was not based on new scientific evidence but was needed to help ensure that women did not underestimate the risks to their baby.’ (6) Women are not being told to give up all alcohol during pregnancy because of a health risk, but because to do so indicates that they have the right, responsible attitude to motherhood: not doing anything for themselves that might conceivably impact negatively on the baby in any way.

That the government feels free to be so explicit about this is very bad news. Not only does it panic women unnecessarily, adding extra guilt to the already burdensome process of pregnancy; it also fuels a process in which the mother-to-be is being cast as someone separate to her fetus, and who simply by being pregnant puts her baby-to-be at risk. Armstrong discusses how, through the framework of FAS, the ‘bodily relationship’ between the woman and the fetus has become redefined, ‘from thinking of the woman and the fetus as a single entity to thinking of the woman and the fetus as two separate individuals. From thinking of pregnant as something a woman is to regarding pregnancy as something she carries.’ Whatever happened to concepts of women’s bodily autonomy, privacy, their right to make choices about their own pregnancy? Some chancer in the Department of Health decides to exercise his or her prejudices about drinking in pregnancy and these crucial concepts are pissed up against a wall.

Even more bizarre than the separation of a mother and the fetus she is nurturing is the way that, in the obsession with eating and drinking in pregnancy, the experience of pregnancy itself becomes detached from the life lived by the pregnant woman. Time and again, we are presented with this image of the pregnant woman – wholesome, natural, totally at ease with herself and her ballooning body – and the image of the modern mother-to-be: stressed-out, selfish, shallow, unconscious of the needs of her unborn child, eating fast food and drinking too much and generally behaving like the woman she was rather than the mother she is to become. Pregnant women are expected to live out this contradiction, carrying on with their lives and work while continually berating themselves for falling short of the Earth Mother ideal. It’s a peculiar form of alienation that results, not in ‘healthier’ living (for who can follow all that advice?), so much as perpetual anxiety and a sense that you have failed before you have even started.

But hey, that’s what the Department of Health wants. So much so that even women who are not pregnant (merely ‘trying to conceive’) are now supposed to behave as if they are – not because of the health of the fetus, because there is no fetus, but to show that they have bought into the ideal of responsible mothering. This preconception business is an absolute racket, and I will return to it in a future Subversive Parents column. For now, let’s just consider this thought: that for the health authorities, the ideal pregnant woman is one who behaves as though she is pregnant without actually carrying a fetus to whom she might be posing some kind of a risk.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”jennie@bristow.com”}.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

(1) Alcohol and pregnancy, Department of Health news release, 25 May 2007

(2) Alcohol and pregnancy, Department of Health news release, 25 May 2007

(3) ‘No alcohol in pregnancy’ advised, BBC News, 25 May 2007

(4) Alcohol and pregnancy, Department of Health news release, 25 May 2007

(5) Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder, Elizabeth M Armstrong, John Hopkins University Press, 2003

(6) ‘No alcohol in pregnancy’ advised, BBC News, 25 May 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics