HERE is a list of things that women shouldn’t do during pregnancy if they want a healthy baby: drink fruit juices (risk of diabetes); eat leafy vegetables (risk of listeriosis); change the cat litter (risk of toxoplasmosis); paint the nursery (risk of fumes); use an electric blanket (produces electromagnetic fields); take hot baths (lowers blood pressure, depriving baby of oxygen and nutrients); and wear high heels (risk of getting dizzy and falling over).
That’s without the obvious ones: ingesting soft cheese, pâté or raw fish, and smoking, drinking or taking drugs. It makes you wonder if it wouldn’t be better if expectant mothers were placed in quarantine, like that nurse who didn’t have Ebola. Supervised, of course. Then they would be prevented from making poor life choices – such as recklessly dipping a carrot into homemade mayonnaise – and they couldn’t be blamed for any problems, from myopia to ADHD, that their unborn child might face.
Scapegoating women is nothing new; in the 19th century, physical and mental disabilities were linked to the mother’s eating habits, her anxieties or the company she kept during pregnancy. In the 1970s, mothers who weren’t tactile enough were blamed for their children’s autism. Today pregnant women cannot avoid headlines that scream “Mothers’ stress harms foetus” or “Mothers’ diet lowers IQ”. Pregnancy is one long guilt trip. And it doesn’t end with the delivery. No sooner have you stopped fretting that you might have inadvertently used a skincare product containing benzyl peroxide than they’re on at you about breastfeeding, weaning, over-stimulation, under-stimulation and the dangers of baby walkers, until your head is spinning and you are inwardly screaming: “How can there be so many ways to fail?”
Last week it was foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) – a genuinely awful condition involving brain damage, linked to excessive drinking during pregnancy, of which no-one presumably approves. Still, many people believe the medical establishment has overstated the danger, warning women to cut out alcohol altogether, when there is no proof that light-to-moderate drinking is harmful. And the latest assault on women’s autonomy is even more sinister. During a hearing into a compensation claim being brought by a seven-year-old FAS sufferer, lawyers argued the behaviour of her mother – who was 18 when she became pregnant, and drank half a bottle of vodka and eight cans of lager a day – was equivalent to “an attempt at manslaughter”.
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The case – which will decide whether a foetus damaged in utero that goes on to be born with life-changing injuries has been the victim of a crime (and so is eligible for criminal injuries compensation) could pave the way for those who drink heavily during pregnancy to be prosecuted, a terrifying prospect for anyone who believes in civil liberties. And if you could be prosecuted for heavy drinking, then why not other risky behaviours, such as smoking, taking a particular medication or flying after 28 weeks? You would think in a society where a woman’s control over her own body is an article of faith and abortion is easily available up to 24 weeks, such scenarios ought to be fantastical. How could a foetus have no rights when it comes to termination, but suddenly accrue them if its mother risks inflicting other forms of damage?
So bizarre is it, you would dismiss the suggestion as the lunatic haverings of a maverick lawyer if it weren’t for the experience of a growing number of women across the Atlantic. In 2006, Mississippi teenager Rennie Gibbs was charged with murder after her baby was stillborn with the umbilical cord around its neck and traces of a cocaine byproduct in its blood, though medical experts produced no evidence of a link between the baby’s death and Gibbs’ substance abuse. It took eight years for the charge to be dropped. Similar cases have been brought against dozens of other women. In Indianapolis, Bei Bei Shuai was charged with murder after she ate rat poison in an attempt to kill herself when her boyfriend abandoned her; she survived but her baby died. She eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of criminal recklessness. In Alabama, a chemical endangerment law designed to protect children from inhaling fumes from methamphetamine being cooked by their parents has been used to prosecute dozens of women who have suffered miscarriages.
Some believe it is an underhand move by pro-lifers to widen the definition of a person to include a foetus and therefore place greater limits on abortion. But even if it’s not, the implications are profound. As always, the women targeted are disproportionately poor, from ethnic minorities and effectively being punished for having troubled, chaotic lives.
The same is true of the girl in the UK; she had been drinking from the age of 13, and by 17 was also using cannabis, LSD and amphetamines. She was a vulnerable young person who needed support, not censure.
All the prospect of being criminalised will do is to prevent girls like her from asking for help and – as likely as not – compound their drinking. More generally, we need to stop turning pregnancy into a 40-week obstacle course peppered with booby traps that expectant women cannot help but trigger. If maternal stress really is bad for babies, then making them feel constantly guilty ought to be an offence in itself.
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