Another brainless idea

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It was the start of 1987. Ten years ago precisely. The times were not dissimilar to this year's beginning. An election was expected in June and the fever was beginning to build. As a presenter of Radio 4's Today programme I was in the eye of the gathering storm. I was also pregnant. Estimated date of delivery, 8 June, election day, 11 June.

And 10 years on? Those of us who thought ourselves pioneers of equal opportunity woke up to tabloid headlines and gleeful media reporting on Thursday morning of the "Just as men thought - pregnant women do lose their minds" variety. A bit of a giggle for half the population and a sense of foreboding in the other.

The story was based on a "research project" carried out by a group of anaesthetists and radi- ologists who had scanned a small number of pregnant women and found that their brains reduced in size while they were pregnant, then returned to normal as the body got back in shape. Explicit in the comments of one of the researchers, the radiologist Professor Graeme Bidder, was the belief that pregnant women's brains "go on holiday during pregnancy". He was even quoted as saying that some lawyers believe, off the record, of course, that they can't rely on the evidence of pregnant women. The team leader was a woman, an anaesthetist, Dr Anita Holdcroft. She's said to have suffered loss of concentration herself. Worrying that, with our lives in her hands.

Several questions arise. Is brain size related to intelligence? It used to be said that women and ethnic minorities had smaller brains than white men and consequently must be less intelligent. Few self- respecting scientists would now put forward the argument that size is everything. There is plenty of evidence to show that it has little, if any, relevance in so complex a process as human intelligence.

How safe is the science as reported in this project? Tests were performed, it is claimed, on 10 healthy pregnant women - hardly a representative sample. Where was the control group? Surely for the results to be considered reliable, similar tests would have to be performed on non-pregnant women and on men. Do we know whether they have cyclical changes in brain size? We do not. The question wasn't asked.

Do all pregnant women react in the same way? Dr Sheila Rossen, a lecturer in psychology at Brunel University, who has researched women and pregnancy, reports that some women feel their intellectual processes increased. They felt sharper, more acute. Others, like Dr Holdcroft, have claimed they became forgetful. But so do some men while recovering from a good night out, a wearying game of squash or a weekend with the kids. Does this threaten their capacity to earn their living or take their place in the world? And does it make us assume that all men going through such experiences are similarly affected?

How damaging to women's employment prospects is the unquestioning acceptance of such theories? When I was pregnant 10 years ago and working it was still considered unusual. There were laws to prevent dismissal and some hard-fought-for maternity benefits. But even in 1995, a young barrister, Dinah Rose, Cosmopolitan's Woman of the Year, told me: "Pregnancy and childbirth are what hold women back. They still lose their jobs because of it." She is a specialist in sex discrimination. Indeed, it was she who, in the early Nineties, represented women who'd been ejected from the forces because of pregnancy. The Equal Opportunities Commission this year reports that questions about pregnancy dismissal, maternity leave and benefits form the bulk of their inquiries.

Loose talk, and reporting, of "scientific proof" - based on just 10 cases - that pregnant women are stupid can only empower prejudiced employers.

The first thing I noticed in working through pregnancy was the way it altered men. For nine glorious months sexual office politics went out of the window. A subtle change seemed to take place in that shift from mistress to madonna as the guys in the office seemed to stop asking themselves, "Will she, won't she, does she, doesn't she," and gave themselves permission to talk in an unprecedented fashion about being husbands, fathers or friends. They also seemed to develop a new respect for my professionalism, battling as I was through such "adversity": their perception, not mine.

As we came closer to the election I faced some of the hardest nuts in British politics at unearthly hours of the morning and with no perceptible diminution of my political acumen or ability to formulate an intelligent question. Neither did my condition appear to soften the combative response of the interviewees although in those few moments when the microphone was closed, even some cabinet ministers found themselves tempted to show a human face. I would be regaled with tales of how one changed the nappies on his return from the Commons late in the night. Another admitted he wished the hours of the House were more conducive to family life. Even Norman Tebbitt, known to friends and detractors alike as the Count Dracula of the Palace of Westminster, waxed lyrical on the pleasures of attending the births of all his children.

I managed to maintain a patient smile at jokes about moving the mike forward, cutting holes in the table and John Humphrys's threats to bring in his green wellies, just in case. Comparisons with fecund sheep on a smallholding in Wales were frequent.

It was a well-intentioned comment from the late Brian Redhead, a revered colleague and mentor, that tipped my mounting irritation over the edge. The morning was one of world-wide mayhem and furious political debate. All he said, in his most avuncular fashion, was, "You must be finding all this so trivial with that little life inside you." At last, the old chestnut that pregnancy and childbirth somehow dull and addle the female brain.

Brian was surprised at, but respectful of, the vehemence of my response when he questioned my commitment to the job at eight and a half months. "It is precisely at this point," I said, "that I am at my most politically aware and acute. After all, it's this little life these politicians hold in their hands."

I don't suggest that all women react in the same way to the momentous events of pregnancy and childbirth. Nor would I want every woman to have to work the way I chose to. We've fought hard for maternity leave and maternity benefits - difficult enough to enjoy in these days of short- term contracts and job insecurity. But we should be seen as individuals, whether pregnant or not, making our own choices about our financial responsibilities, circumstances and family commitments, not popped into a "stupid, incompetent or unconcerned" category simply because we're bearing the next generation.

Let us not force pregnant women, so close to the real value of life, out of the mainstream by myth or disapproval. This is just the time when their voices should be heard.

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