Pregnant women aren't incubators - so why does medical advice treat them as though they are?

The idea has been encouraged that the fetus and the women are two separate individuals whose needs are at odds with one another

Share

For today’s example of how now to talk to pregnant women, just
look at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).

These childbirth specialists have somehow managed to issue the most ridiculous, alarmist advice, that mothers-to-be should view everyday foods and objects as a potential source of danger to their developing child.

The RCOG has been roundly criticised, for falling into the trap of using pseudo-science to alarm women who are already inundated unhelpful pregnancy advice, much of which is based more on superstition than science; but will the backlash stop women from worrying, or doctors from scaremongering? Sadly not.

A conference of medical professionals held at the Royal Society of Medicine next week will discuss the way that advice and anxieties about pregnancy have been fuelled in recent years by a culture of fetal ‘imaging and imagining’, where the ability to see the fetus in the womb has contributed to a set of ideas about the fetus, and the pregnant woman, that are both inaccurate and insulting.

Zoe Williams, journalist and author of What Not to Expect When You're Expecting, will talk about the strange elision of anti-abortion images and arguments and those routinely used in pregnancy advice and antenatal care. With the aggressive monitoring of pregnant woman’s behaviour, particularly in relation to what they eat and whether they drink or smoke, the idea has been encouraged that the fetus and the women are two separate individuals whose needs are at odds with one another.

One consequence of this is that the pregnant woman becomes seen less as a person than as an environment for optimal fetal development; and that it is the role of health authorities and  public health campaigns to dictate to women how they should behave to achieve a healthy pregnancy. This is how you get to the kind of bizarre advice issued by the RCOG – that for women to do anything at all without considering the potential impact on her pregnancy represents a form of irresponsible risk-taking.

Of course, fetal imaging has contributed to many genuine and important improvements in antenatal care. But at the same time, images of the fetus are misused as justifications for why, in the 21 century, it is permissible to treat women with wanted pregnancies as mere incubators, and women who terminate unwanted pregnancies as murderers. This represents a confusion between what ultrasound scans of the fetus can tell us (how a fetus looks) and what scans cannot (what a fetus is).

This confusion will be addressed by Dr Stuart Derbyshire, Reader in Psychology at the University of Birmingham and an expert voice in the UK on the question of fetal pain. He argues that improvements in the clarity of fetal imaging encourages a view of the fetus as a ‘fragile person’, which in turn encourages a sense of danger regarding eating, drinking, exercising, being stressed or becoming sick during pregnancy. In fact, a more rational understanding of the fetus is that it is not yet a fully-formed, or socially conscious, member of society, and the womb is a highly safe and buffered environment.

So a fetus might look like it is smiling - but once we ask ourselves, who can it possibly be smiling at?, we realise that there is something nonsensical about the idea that a fetus, developing on its own in the dark, sleep-like environment of the womb, can experience the kind of emotional interactions that it takes born babies several months to learn. We can also see how reading into images of the fetus the things that we want to see in born babies creates a huge emotional pressure for the pregnant woman, whether she wants to continue her pregnancy or not.

Pro-choice advocates have long been aware of the way that images of developing fetuses are used to guilt-trip women about their decision to end a pregnancy through abortion. Anti-abortion campaigners display graphic, and inaccurate, photographs of fetuses that look like newborn babies, and infer from these images that fetuses can also act like babies: that they can smile, feel pain, even ‘walk’ in the womb. The exploitation of fetal imaging in this way has become more extreme in recent years, particularly in the United States of America, where a number of states have passed ‘mandatory ultrasound’ laws that require women seeking abortion to view a scan of the fetus before having the procedure.

Professor Carol Sanger of Columbia Law School will describe the impact of these laws in a culture where, she says, women have become increasingly ‘fetusised’. When wanted pregnancies are now routinely announced by posting scan photos on social networking sites, and the diagnostic scan - which in Britain takes place at about 20 weeks of pregnancy - is often treated more as a social opportunity to ‘meet the baby’ than a clinical appointment to detect anomalies or growth problems, the idea that the fetus is the same kind of being as a newborn baby is no longer a prejudice promoted by anti-abortion campaigners on the margins.

Women seeking abortion do not need an ultrasound scan to know that they will have a baby if the pregnancy develops. They have made the decision to have an abortion precisely because they do not want a baby, or cannot cope with having a baby, at that point in their lives. So the only point of forcing them to see an ultrasound scan can be to make them feel bad about their decision.

For women with a wanted pregnancy, improvements in fetal imaging should improve the quality of antenatal care, through the ability to detect anomalies in the pregnancy more clearly and at an earlier stage. But through the overblown and unscientific pregnancy advice given to women, which implies that everything a pregnant woman eats or drinks passes directly to ‘baby’, as though she is feeding an infant blue cheese or red wine from a spoon, the use and abuse of fetal imaging has actually mystified pregnancy even further. Some of the literature displayed by the NHS to promote healthy pregnancy behaviour uses images that could have been taken directly from anti-abortion propaganda – and this should give us pause for thought.

Despite technological advances that have made pregnancy and birth much safer, pregnant women are encouraged to feel neurotically self-conscious and fearful. This is really not what women should have to expect when they are expecting.

‘Abortion, motherhood and the medical profession’, a conference organised jointly by British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Royal Society of Medicine, takes place on Wednesday 12 June 2013 at the Royal Society Of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, LONDON, W1G 0AE. View the programme here

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions