Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Firing up the baby machines (cross post)

"I won't offer you a wine then."

My friend and my conversation had been disrupted by a person foisting off wine at some function a few months ago. I wanted to thank the man for being considerate of me not being able to drink due to the medication I was on at the time. Except he wasn't talking to me, he was talking to my friend's stomach which was bearing the obvious sign that she was pregnant.

I suppose he was doing her a favour by acknowledging that she was pregnant and the dangers that alcohol poses to the fetus inside her. But I couldn't help but think that this 'considerate gesture' was actually another form of control. My friend didn't get the chance to refuse the alcohol because he had decided that since she was pregnant, she shouldn't be drinking.* This incident was just a small moment in what I can only imagine is a constant barrage of often conflicting advice that visibly pregnant women are subjected to on what they can/can't be eating, drinking and goodness knows what else.

However despite all the hoopla around drinking being bad during pregnancy, medicine doesn't know if it is amount, frequency or timing of alcohol consumption during pregnancy that causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Which is why medical professionals recommend that pregnant women don't indulge in a tipple, they can't conclusively say what the acceptable levels are which is a huge leap of logic from just a mouthful of alcohol will damage your baby forever.

And many pregnant women will end up drinking. In some cases because they don't know they are pregnant, however in other cases it will be because she chooses to which she is well within her rights to do since she is only pregnant not brain dead. That is unless we are going to start demanding all women undergo a pregnancy test before purchasing a drink. And though the situation in Tauranga is regrettable, it might actually be a symptom of a more broader problem, New Zealand's binge drinking culture. But we seem as blind to that as we are to her partner hitting her over the head with a bottle which is what sparked the call out in the first place.

*Interestingly if you say that you aren't pregnant, then you are subjected to pressure to drink.


Anna McM said...

I've actually given this issue more thought than abortion, since it seems ethically trickier to me. The idea of the Police having the power to intervene any further than making a social service referral seems really misguided to me.

It's hard to say where you stop on the fetal health issue too. A woman with gestational diabetes who doesn't adhere to a diabetic diet can also cause serious health problems in her child, but that doesn't seem to invoke a punitive response.

Robyn said...

Stuff has a poll asking "Should it be illegal for pregnant women to drink?"

So far the results are:
Yes (4790 votes, 51.2%)
No (4564 votes, 48.8%)

There's no doubt this is fuelled by the story of the Nine-Month Pregnant Woman Who Got Rool Pissed. Based on what I know of that story, I'd say making it illegal for her to drink wouldn't have stopped that tragic binge.

And what sort of punishment would such a crime get? A prison sentence? Community service? None of those would be kind to new mothers.

This in turn reminds me of an acquaintance who was complaining that her diet was so boring after her midwife told her she couldn't eat salads. I think it was directed at supermarket salads, which run the risk of listeria, but she wouldn't even dare chop up some tomatoes and make a salad at home.

ms poinsettia said...

It reminds me of other restrictions on pregnant woman as well. My sister-in-law wouldn't eat any raw vegetables in case of toxicoplasmis (however you say/spell it:)) and I've heard other stories about people being incredibly cautious after being told horror stories (including a woman who ordered a burger but would only eat the bread in case meat was undercooked, cheese was unpasteurised, and lettuce wasn't washed properly!). I think there's a lot of scaremongering going on that makes women feel totally responsible if something turns out to be 'wrong' with their baby).

As soon as we say it is ok to arrest pregnant women for drinking, we are opening the door for many other restrictions too - thereby treating women like mere baby vessels whose rights pale into comparison of the fetus. Which I thinks lead us to attempts to restrict/ban abortion.

Ari said...

Wait, you mean it isn't a crime to be female and drunk yet even leaving aside the whole pregnancy thing? I'm surprised *rolls eyes*

Joanna said...

I know there's been some uproar in the States about compulsory adding of folic acid to bread, because it treats every single woman as an assumed baby-making machine, and this along with the drinking thing makes me uneasy. I want babies to be healthy, but I don't want anyone thinking that they have the right to tell me what t do with my body. I suppose I would advocate that folic acid supplements were available and affordable and encouraged for pregnant women, and likewise that there were education campaigns about the danger of foetal alcohol syndrome, as well as better health and support services available for pregnant women, rather than legislation as such.

George Darroch said...

While it isn't known what the exact relationship between alcohol and FAS is, I'd advocate that putting a poison into your body (as alcohol is - an enjoyable one in moderation, but a poison nonetheless) puts the soon to be born child at at least a moderate risk of harm.

At what point does the bodily integrity of the woman stop taking precedence over the life of a child who will soon be born? Never? I'm ignorant here about how feminists have tried to untangle this mess. Here, as in the case of breastfeeding, you have a situation where the woman's right to her body interferes with the child's right to health. I'm not suggesting anyone here is, but posting either as an absolute means severely compromising the other.

Interestingly, on the subject of Robyn's comments, recent research strongly suggests that "morning sickness" is the pregnant body pre-emptively striking against foods that may harm the foetus.

#13baby said...

I suppose I would advocate that folic acid supplements were available and affordable and encouraged for pregnant women, and likewise that there were education campaigns about the danger of foetal alcohol syndrome

Would you really? I think any such education campaigns or encouragements to use supplements would just be extremely patronising since they would presume pregnant women know less about how to handle their bodies than, say, the Ministry of Health.

It would be better than outright legislation to ban this or that, but it would still be treating women as baby making machines.

The ex-expat said...

@ George you are right it is difficult. But it is amazing how much we angst about those nine months in vitro in comparison to the 18 years following the birth. Dolling out unwanted advice is easy, but actions to make the lot of mothers with small children are hard.

As for morning sickness, it is interesting. I remember reading that cravings are also a manifestation of women not having enough certain type of nutrient in their normal diets.

Nikki (Mother of the Devil Child) said...

Ahhh haaaard topic.
I think that (as Robyn mentioned) that making it illegal isn't going to stop the people who do it - as far as societal norms go, it is pretty widespread that drinking and pregnancy are frowned upon.

And how exactly do you draft a law about pregnancy and drinking? I drank my little heart out during the first 16 weeks of my pregnancy, not knowing that I was pregnant until then.

The second time I was pregnant I knew for a fact I was terminating and could have done with a stiff drink! (Strangely enough, I still couldn't drink out of respect for the fetus. Totally illogical I know.) But it presents an interesting dilemma for possible legislation.

Andddd while I'm rambling: I recall a situation where a young girl we knew from school was out drinking in a bar at 7 months pregnant - and hiding the alcohol from her sisters who she was with. My friend was serving her and had a hard time handing over the drink... but it wasn't her place to deny the alcohol.

Anna McM said...

George, the most interesting thing I've ever read on the issue (can't remember which particular feminist came out with it) is that it's mistaken to regard a woman and her unborn child as having conflicting interests. I know that's not a very specific prescription for anything at all, but it does suggest that treating a pregnant woman who's drinking in a compassionate way rather than a punitive one is a good start! Having the Police asking for increased powers over pregnant women and rednecks ringing talkback doesn't do any pregnant woman with a drinking problem any good at all.

Anonymous said...

My friend just had a baby six weeks ago. Healthy baby, all well, until she realised baby wasn't getting enough breastmilk. Her baby was hungry, and crying for milk. After she raised this with her (two) midwives, and asked what she should do, they both told her to keep breastfeeding, which would encourage more milk. But it didn't. After 3 weeks the baby HAD NOT PUT ON ANY WEIGHT. The baby was weighed again and the same story - keep breastfeeding to encourage your milk to come in. Both midwives advised against formula, and made her feel like a failure for not producing enough milk.

After the four week weigh in, she walked straight from the natal care centre to the chemist and bought a tub of Karicare. Baby now has both formula and breastmilk and is putting on weight and stopped crying. Let's be clear, her midwives were encouraging her to starve her baby.

This is a prime example of how women are treated like absolute crap in the baby-making game, like passive sops to be taken advantage of depending on the agenda of the day. Breastfeeding is a good example, but pregnancy is too. Any anthropologist will tell you that many women do not produce enough milk to sustain a baby. This is natural - there was never a magical period when women were perfectly fecund, raising all their babies to childhood. This is why formula was invented.

I could go on, but I won't. Women's complete lack of power in the pregnancy and birth arena upsets me almost more than any other issue I can think of.

How this relates to the pregnant friend being denied alcohol? There is a cultural expectation that pregnant women's bodies are public property - this is why we let ourselves be treated (as above) to such terrible "care" or advice.

I'll leave that there.

Julie said...

Thanks for writing about this Stef, sorry it has taken me a while to comment.

One of the difficulties with this stuff is not just the judgement of strangers but the judgement of those in your everyday life, particularly your partner, in-laws, parents, etc. While I didn't have any troubles with any of those people I know the loss of control you feel when you are pregnant, and already have a lot of people telling you "do this",
"don't do that". To be living with people who look down their noses at what you eat, and what you do to cope during a period of extreme stress on your physical and mental health, would just be horrible, and could only make matters worse.

George, I'm aware of the research that suggests morning sickness may be a way the body avoids possible toxins that could harm the fetus. This is actually not a very new idea, it was part of my studies in anthro back in the '90s. And maybe it's the case for some aspects of morning sickness. But 14 weeks of chucking up almost everything, and losing weight as a result, tends to suggest that in my case it wasn't simply avoiding toxins that was the problem! And half of the pregnant don't get morning sickness at all. I want to be one of them next time!

In general a lot of the dietary restrictions that some apply to pregnancy are actually the kind of choices you would make for yourself if you weren't pregnant but were being OCD about avoiding the possibility of illness, (which I think may be the point Anna McM is making in her most recent comment.)

Anna McM said...

Yeah, that's kind of what I was getting at. You could regulate almost every aspect of a woman's life in the name of fetal health - forcing her onto a diabetic diet is just one example. Regulating a woman's drinking is probably a socially popular idea because drinking (for women at least) carries some social opprobrium. But unborn children are subject to all sorts of potential dangers, and regulating them all would be ridiculous. Plus, there's no social will to regulate many of them. The pregnant woman who works to the end of her pregnancy because she is poor may develop pre-eclampsia (sp?), for example. I don't see any Police media releases about that.

Julie said...

The working right up to your due date thing is a particular area of disapproval, one I encountered once in my work. Under the law it is the pregnant person who determines when their maternity leave starts, not the employer. Only if the pregnancy is creating a health and safety issue for that worker or other workers can the employer 1. shift them to other duties and 2. (if that doesn't work or isn't possible) insist they start leave earlier than they want to.

A lot of this comes down to trusting women to make the right decisions for themselves. I couldn't have worked right up to the due date (for one I couldn't get any shoes on other than jandals for the two weeks before Wriggly's early arrival). But other women can. And it's not something you can necessarily know in advance either - one pregnancy you'll puke your guts out for months, another it'll be bring on the pickle and banana sandwiches with extra mayo.

So I favor the "let the woman decide for herself" approach. It may mean that sometimes that decision is not the one I would make in the same circumstances. But if I don't want others butting in on my body and my choices, then I can't be doing that to others either.