The Womb Police

This blog first appeared on BlogHer.

When I was six months pregnant with my third child, I had the honor of toasting one of my closest friends at her wedding. I stood, wine glass in hand, extolling the great gifts of a well-met marriage rubbing my expanding belly for emphasis. After I sat down, one of the men at our table took away my wine glass and said, “I know you know your baby doesn’t need this.” Now, it should be noted, I hadn’t taken a sip from the glass, but that was not the point. This guy was just another in a long line of well-meaning men (and the occasional woman) who felt compelled to tell me what to eat, drink, and generally do while I was pregnant. Funny thing is, my doctor had actually advised me (off the record) to have the occasional glass of red wine.

You see, I have a malformed uterus. My condition holds a real risk to the fetus of preterm delivery. When other pregnant women begin having Braxton-Hicks contractions — a perfectly normal means for the uterus to prepare for delivery — I begin going into early labor. In my previous pregnancies, I had tried using terbutaline, but it made me jittery, and my doctor and I agreed we would only use it as a last ditch effort. As the contractions were still very mild and rare at this stage in my pregnancy, my doctor suggested that red wine could help ease my condition. In short, I was on doctor’s orders to imbibe when necessary.

A woman’s decisions regarding her own health during pregnancy are already fraught with anxiety. We want what is best for our growing fetus all the while needing to balance out what is best for us. As Julia Moskin wrote in her essay on drinking during pregnancy, “our responsibility for minimizing risk through perfect behavior feels vast.” In the end, we must come to peace with the reality that these choices are weighed between the demands of the present and the future consequences we can live with.

We are bombarded with frightening information on the risks of our decisions. We are told that if we eat soft cheese, sushi, deli meats, if we drink alcohol or unpasteurized fruit juices, if we dye our hair or get a pedicure, our child’s future will be compromised by low IQ, behavioral problems, and late-in-life heart disease, diabetes and so on. AsDr. Jerome Groopman recently wrote in his review of Anne Paul Murphy’s new book Origins, “the food the mother eats, the air she breathes, the water she drinks, the stress or trauma she experiences — all may affect her child, for better or worse, over the decades to come.”

All of this is grist for maternal guilt and fuel for the womb police. For years, they have been focusing their efforts on whether women can choose to keep or terminate a pregnancy. Fetal rights have been used in numerous legal cases as a tool for the anti-choice movement. However, these efforts have not stood up in court. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Ferguson vs. The City of Charleston that “the government of this country should not be permitted to police its pregnant citizens through their umbilical cord.” The unveiling (and controversial) research linking all manner of societal ills to gestation is giving new impetus to the fetal rights movement and a new opportunity to control women’s bodies.

Even well-meaning liberals are getting on the band wagon. In the New York Times this past weekend, Nicholas Kristof wrote that “early childhood education may be a bit late as a way to break the cycles of poverty.” He went on to quote Anne Murphy Paul who said, “given the odds stacked against poor women and their fetuses, the most effective antipoverty program might be one that starts before birth.” Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatric cardiologist, disagrees. He argues that “pinning complex public-health problems, like childhood obesity (or poverty), on failed gestation has a blame-the-victim undercurrent.” The research itself is not always reliable. In an oft quoted Swedish study linking behavior problems to moderate alcohol consumption, you’ll discover that “despite that fact that four of the eight studies did not indicate a link between alcohol consumption while pregnant and behavioral problems the institute maintains that the evidence is sufficient to support its recommendation.” I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an agenda to me.

I worry about the implication of all of this. Are we steps away from governmental intervention on our choices during gestation? Will this become yet another class issue in which poor and disenfranchised women are told what to do in order to control their progeny? Or worse, does our future look frighteningly like the subjugated state-controlled breeders in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale? (If you haven’t read it, run, don’t walk to your nearest independent bookstore to buy this one now.) At the very least, most pregnant women would agree with Julia Moskins when she says, “the public seems to seriously doubt whether pregnant women can be trusted to make responsible decisions on their own.”

All of this comes back to that singular glass of wine. To celebrate the occasion of my friend’s wedding and to slow the mild contractions I was experiencing, I did drink it. And, when my son does not get into Harvard, I can tell him what Dr. Sanghavi said, “at some point you have to stop blaming your issues on your mother’s uterus.”


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