Last week I got an email from a reproductive rights campaigner I have known, liked and admired for many years. “Good morning,” it began. “I thought this would make you cross.” She went on to describe a fresh frontier in the war against pregnant women: that any woman drinking anything during pregnancy, even a glass of wine in the first week of it, would have that marked on her medical records, which would then be transferred to her baby’s records. It was a Nice idea (for clarification, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – this is not a nice idea), being put out for consultation.
It did make me cross. Not because of the gross infringement of women’s privacy – it would probably be illegal to transfer a woman’s health records over to those of her child – and complete obliteration of trust between a prospective mother and her midwife, but because this is just bilge. Welcome to the age of bilge, where mindless hysteria accrues around risks for which there is no evidence; where experts are disregarded in favour of fanatics; where real and demonstrable threats to pregnant women – which come mainly from underfunded services – are ignored in preference for finger-pointing; where no explanation is ever more complicated or less divisive than: “People (especially women) are weak.” But far more than cross, I felt nostalgic. Because I remember a time when this unusual approach was limited to pregnant women, and now it’s our whole politics.
When I got pregnant in 2006, it was already de rigueur for the midwife to ask how much you used to drink before you got pregnant, presumably as an indicator of how much you had most likely drunk in the first few weeks of gestation, and write it in your big yellow book. I said: “Twenty units before; now I’ve stopped,” and she, out of either sloppiness or sheer evil – I never saw her again, so was unable to determine – wrote down: “Twenty units: spotted.” The yellow book follows you everywhere: to every scan, to listen for every heartbeat, right into the birthing pool. Bearing in mind the fateful typo happened at week eight, I probably had to explain 17 times, to 17 different people, that I hadn’t been spotted drinking 20 units a week, I had stopped. Around the third time it happened, I started saying: “Hang on, there actually isn’t any evidence that moderate levels of drinking harm unborn children,” only to find myself embroiled in debate about whether or not 20 units was moderate. This led to the philosophical question: if a woman drinks to her own content in the time period before her pregnancy, is that any of an obstetrician’s bloody business?
The personal had become political. A lot of the campaigning around alcohol abuse in pregnancy started in the US, with strange, two-men-and-a-dog organisations whose funding was undiscoverable, and whose wins were huge. Even in the 2010s, there were American states in which a miscarriage could be a criminal offence, if it could be tied conclusively enough to a joint or a piña colada. There were surrounding hot-button issues related to stress in pregnancy, to breastfeeding (or the failure thereof). The contours were always the same – because extreme alcoholism, or bottle-feeding in a country without clean water, or extreme stress (women who had lost an existing child or spouse during pregnancy were always the study group) were known to be very harmful, it stood to reason that any drinking, or any bottle-feeding, or any stress was harmful. Except it didn’t stand to reason. It could never be proved, and the gap where the science should have been was filled with rhetoric, people getting angrier and angrier with these irresponsible women who refused to put their unborn babies first.
The more daring of the abstinence campaigners started to nudge at the logical boundaries of their argument: if any alcohol during pregnancy was dangerous, and a quarter of pregnancies were accidental, then any fertile woman might logically be accidentally pregnant at any time, ergo women shouldn’t drink at all. One autism specialist started to theorise in quite a determined fashion that, even while no one could yet see the mechanism whereby alcohol in pregnancy caused autistic spectrum disorders, they were plainly on the rise, and so was drinking – surely some connection. “Except probably not!” I used to yell, pretty regularly actually, on whatever radio phone-in would have me. It turned out this specialist went to my former in-laws’ church, so I would spend all week ranting about him, then every couple of months see him in a congregation of Baptists and have to avert my eyes.
I thought it was important, not just for pregnant women, but for all women, that we saw this for what it was: a last-minute surge of the patriarchy, trying to regain control over women’s self-determination via our reproductive apparatus. Then I ceased to be pregnant, and it didn’t seem so important any more. But has the issue receded for me because it’s no longer my circus or my monkeys, or because there is so much more going on now, on the misogynist-authoritarian scene, that this feels pretty niche? Either way, it’s important to stay cross, since thwarted anger curdles into sadness. For the sake of the sisterhood and my own mojo, I remain furious.