Debate: Do we make too many concessions to pregnant women?

This week, a heavily pregnant drug dealer was sent to jail, re- igniting the ethical debate over privileges for mothers-to-be. At work as in court, argues Leo McKinstry, pregnant women get a special deal, and that's wrong. Maureen Freely disagrees. There's nothing 'special' about being regarded as a hormonal wreck and a shirker, she says

The law should treat everyone equally. That includes pregnant women, argues Leo McKinstry.

The outrage over the jailing of pregnant drug dealer Sharon Williams is as predictable as it is misplaced. The prison reform lobby splutters about the court's supposed lack of compassion. Yet it is Ms Williams, not the judge, who showed a callous disregard for the welfare of her own offspring by her continued involvement with selling drugs. Her selfish and irresponsible actions must have already caused untold suffering to her five children.

The argument from the reformers that a female criminal - even one convicted of a serious offence - should automatically be spared prison because of pregnancy is a highly dangerous one. If implemented, it would undermine the concept that we are all equal before the law, that justice is blind. It would, moreover, act as a perverse incentive towards pregnancy amongst women drawn to law-breaking. Indeed, one former police officer told me this week that he has seen many cases of women deliberately conceiving a baby to try to win greater leniency from the courts.

It is ironic that we should bear such special pleading for pregnant women just at a time when we are moving towards greater equality between the sexes. In all walks of life we are urged not to practise any form of gender bias. Yet direct discrimination is precisely what the reform lobby wants to see in our criminal justice system. And in reality, special treatment of pregnant women can be seen throughout our culture. So in the welfare state, pregnant mothers receive the highest priority whether it be in social security benefits or help from social workers or local authority housing.

When I was a Labour councillor in Islington, I had one case in my ward where an engaged women was told that she was far more likely to receive accommodation if, instead of marrying, she became pregnant. It is little wonder, with such attitudes prevalent in our state bureaucracy, that the welfare bill for lone parents now tops pounds 10bn.

Special treatment is also reflected in the excellence of NHS maternity services compared to the sorry state of care for the elderly. Some public employers now offer 53 weeks a year maternity leave - underwritten by the taxpayer - and woe betide anyone who ignores the new rights of pregnant women. The Ministry of Defence has had to pay out pounds 58 million in compensation to servicewomen who had to leave the forces because of their condition, including an award of pounds 455,000 to a Royal Navy Nurse.

The same problems arise in the private sector. In one notorious case in Braintree, Essex, a local shopkeeper, who had not taken a holiday for 15 years, was driven to the brink of ruin by the compensation he was ordered to pay after not giving a job to a 22-year-old woman who was six months pregnant, despite the fact that the post involved heavy lifting.

This is a graphic indicator of the sort of double standards that now apply: demands for equal rights on one hand and privileges on the other. Of course, I recognise the difficulties facing pregnant women - and give thanks that, as a man, I will never have to go through them. But, if we are to have a fair and just society, it is absurd to portray pregnant women as victims in constant need of support - especially when they are involved in criminal behaviour.

Pregnant women don't have it too easy. They are, however, treated like idiots, says Maureen Freely.

If a judge decided to let a pregnant woman off the hook, he wouldn't be doing her any favours. The reason he would treat her more easily because of her condition is because he sees pregnancy as an illness that diminishes her responsibility. She cannot be treated like other adults because she is presumed to be awash with hormones that have turned her back into a naughty little kitten, at the mercy of every passing caprice. This mentality is exactly what being pregnant is all about: you lose all of your adult privileges without gaining the advantages you truly need.

There is no doubt that pregant women deserve understanding and special provision. They need time to go to their appointments (like men with back problems); they should be able to respond to solid medical advice such as to stay at home if her baby is at risk and work there (as would a man with back problems); they should be allowed to shift their work patterns and know that her employer retains full faith in their commitments to getting their jobs done well. In short they need to be able to make the necessary adjustments at work.

But as well as this, they also needs to continue to receive respect as intellectual equals, despite their appearance, and that is what they don't get a lot of the time. For every man who continues to address you as an equal after the announcement, there are 10 who meet the news with a pregnant pause, a bewildered "et tu, Brute" look, and a sigh of disappointment.

Social demotion is what you actually get. Theoretically that's not without its perks. After all, serious adults can't burst into tears in the middle of a meeting and get away with it. It's nice to be allowed such peccadilloes. Or it would be, if the indulgence didn't put your job at risk. The truth is that most pregnant women are terrified of behaving anything less than a 100 per cent non-pregnant but even that's not enough. You will still be presumed to have less upstairs than you did before and be treated accordingly.

At best you will receive unctuous praise for doing the job you have always done. Your colleagues' low expectations of you will continue to descend along with your centre of gravity. They will presume that you won't want that exciting promotion/project/opportunity now that you have Other Things on your mind. If you protest, they dismiss you as hormonal.

Meanwhile, everything you do confirms their beliefs about mothers-to- be. If you so much as say, "Goodness, it's half past eight! I've been at work for almost 12 hours, it must he time to go home!", they say, "Typical. All this woman can think about is feathering her nest."

One thing they're fairly good about as your due date approaches is making a great meal of rushing about the room looking for a chair for you. But do not be fooled. They are already asking themselves who will be filling it next. Pregnant women are perceived as liabilities. Don't assume your job is safe - it's not.

Twelve per cent of women now earn more than their partners. This means their families depend on their wages. The reason 67 per cent of women are back at work 11 months after giving birth, it that their salaries are an essential part of the family income, too. And yet employers persist in this delusion that pregnant women don't really need to have jobs. The pig-heads! They're the ones who have it too easy.

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