The conference ‘Policing Pregnancy: who should be a mother?’ took place on the 18 May 2017 at Canterbury Christ Church University. Tanya Portch, second year Sociology student, reports.
This interdisciplinary event was a collaboration between Engaging Sociology, British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS) and Birthrights, and explored issues surrounding pregnancy, autonomy, responsibility, risk, motherhood, and the effect of these on the experiences of women.
The 2017 conference followed a similar collaboration held at the Royal College of Physicians in April 2016, and included a wide range of speakers and attendees from a variety of academic backgrounds.
In the run up to the conference, plenty was featured in national press about policing pregnancy, particularly with regards to alcohol guidelines for pregnant women. These included:
- Guardian: Warning pregnant women over dangers of alcohol goes too far, experts say; and Pregnant women don’t need a blanket ban on drinking. They need the facts.
- HuffPost UK: Women Deserve Evidence-based Information On Pregnancy – Not Policing
- Daily Mail: Now mothers-to-be are told they CAN have a drink during pregnancy: Official advice to abstain is ‘sexist and over and over cautious’, say researchers
- Daily Telegraph: Telling women not to drink during pregnancy ‘sexist’; and I drank alcohol throughout my three pregnancies – but should I have?
- Mirror: Pregnant women told they CAN drink some alcohol and that tee-total advice is ‘sexist’
- i-news: Alcohol advice for pregnant women ‘is sexist and may cause harm’
The media coverage met with a mix of support and criticism. Critics cited the problem of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and the warnings given by existing medical advice, whilst others agreed with the argument that pregnant women are inundated with contradictory advice and stripped of their autonomy. The article and media coverage set the tone for the conference, promising a stimulating and engaging day of sessions.
The first session of the day, entitled “‘Ideal pregnancies’ and the new family planning” focused on abortion and autonomy. Session 2 focused upon the advice given to pregnant women, specifically regarding alcohol consumption, obesity, drug addiction, and the notion of women’s sacrifices during pregnancy. Entitled ‘Bad bodies, bad choices? Behavioural advice and the pregnant woman’, it featured speakers from a range of backgrounds. Much was made of the need to support women, rather than demonise their behaviour, and to prioritise the wellbeing of the mother in addition to the foetus.
The third session, ‘Pregnancy surveillance and the medical profession’, looked at the influence of the medical field on experiences of pregnancy, from early twentieth century surveillance to more recent discussions of epigenetics. The fourth and final session, entitled ‘Breastfeeding, guilt, and ideals of good motherhood’, covered a plethora of ideas and philosophies surrounding the oft-controversial act of breastfeeding and explored the notion of norms and values associated with breastfeeding.
The #policingpregnancy presence on Twitter has been met with a backlash from some commentators and organisations. Of particular interest was a tweet from the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome-UK (NOFAS-UK), which posted an infographic stating “Real feminists can handle a mocktail”.
The declaration of ‘real feminists’ highlights an interesting discord within feminism as to what constitutes womanhood, and the ideas of autonomy and risk. The conflict between experts, academics, and organisations, is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of pregnancy. It is an issue that whilst seems particularly personal, is often at the heart of public issue debate, and thus transcends the binary of the public and private spheres.
The success of the Policing Pregnancy event, including the positive feedback and indeed the criticisms, demonstrates the need for an open discussion regarding women’s experiences of pregnancy. It is necessary to cease the shaming of women and acknowledge the contradictions that exist in widespread pregnancy advice and medical expertise.