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When the Press Puts Private Decisions About Pregnancy and Parenting Up for Public Debate, Women Lose

Reporters should go easy on the sanctimony and fear mongering as they frame articles on pregnancy and childrearing.
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(Photo: caneladeurubu/Flickr)

(Photo: caneladeurubu/Flickr)

“‘I just want the story told. And she does need help. And at the end of the day, she is mentally unstable. It doesn’t make it right to take a life too, but still,’” is the quote that closes a recent report in the Washington Post about the unprecedented murder charges that Kenlissia Jones faced for taking an abortion-inducing drug during her second trimester without the supervision of a doctor and then giving live birth to a fetus that died within the hour. The charges were dropped shortly after her arrest, but the medical trauma of birth followed by the trauma of arrest were likely profound. It is telling that the Post saw fit to interview Jones’ brother Ricco Riggins extensively about his own internal anguish following the grim series of events in Georgia in early June, making sure to note that he and his wife would never make a decision similar to Jones’. I would call this a page out of Who the Hell Asked You?, but I already know who asked him: It was the Washington Post.

The centering of external experiences of pregnant women’s health care decisions and traumas is one of the many ways that society cruelly takes a sudden and invasive interest in women who have often been historically deprived of social services. While Jones’ case is particularly extreme, it is part of a larger trend of asserting paternalistic control over women’s reproductive health decisions and subsequent parenting decisions. Self-appointed guardians in law enforcement and in the court of public opinion are quick to assert custody over these women; and the academy and the media often comply with this narrative without a fight. It has spawned a genre of panicked articles that place the blame for any harm occurring during pregnancy or infancy squarely on the woman that we’ve collectively decided is obliged to heed our warnings.

Long before a baby is born, a pregnant woman is bombarded with scary messages about how she might be inadvertently ruining her baby’s life.

Long before a baby is born, a pregnant woman is bombarded with scary messages about how she might be inadvertently ruining her baby’s life. A study in Pediatrics that found a link between living at higher altitudes and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was picked up widely online, even though the study’s authors made clear that it was not a sufficient reason to leave higher altitudes and that SIDS risk remains very low. When a Science Translational Medicine study of acetaminophen exposure in utero was covered in Time, the headline “Tylenol During Pregnancy Could Harm Male Babies, Study Shows” prepared readers for devastating impacts of the most common painkiller used during pregnancy. The harm was actually reduced testosterone production in male fetuses, potentially resulting in lower fertility and a higher risk of testicular cancer later in life. While the concern is legitimate, the message that a pregnant woman ought to submit to sacrificial pain in the interest of her unborn son’s eventual sperm count is part of the broader trend of policing women’s decisions during their pregnancies.

And while we love to police women’s behaviors during pregnancy, the finger-wagging instinct is even more enthusiastic on the topic of birth itself. A new meta-analysis of several studies of C-section outcomes in the British Medical Journal found that infants delivered by C-section had higher incidences of chronic diseases like asthma, obesity, and diabetes. The flood of coverage that followed was predictably hand-wringing over the fact that women were not making “an informed choice” if they didn’t know the “seriously scary health risks.” Melinda Wenner Moyer at Slate wrote a thorough takedown of this coverage, debunking the idea that it is selfish women who are responsible for the rise in elective C-sections when the overwhelming majority of them felt pressured to have a C-section by their doctor. She notes that mothers with diabetes are often instructed to have C-sections to prevent complications and that it would follow that their children might be at higher risk of the disease. But Wenner Moyer’s piece was the exception in a media environment frothing for new opportunities to make mothers feel terrible.

The message that a pregnant woman ought to submit to sacrificial pain in the interest of her unborn son’s eventual sperm count is part of the broader trend of policing women’s decisions during their pregnancies.

Once a mother has given birth, there is no reprieve from the barrage of strangers and non-medical professionals in the media who feel the need to weigh in on how she rears her child. “Study: Breastfed Children Have Slightly Lower Risk of Childhood Leukemia,” reads the USA Today headline covering a meta-analysis of 18 studies in JAMA Pediatrics, an article which likely sent an untold number of busybodies into their email accounts to write pregnant women they know (if the thousands of Facebook shares are any indication). You know, to be helpful. The doctors quoted in the story state plainly that breastfeeding doesn’t prevent cancer and that the study is inherently limited. Even if the study’s conclusions were correct, the risk of a child getting leukemia would only go from 0.005 percent to 0.004 percent. But that doesn’t stop the article’s author from devoting the last third of her story to sharing studies showing the benefits of breastfeeding. Zero links are provided to studies that prove time and again that breastfeeding is far less feasible for low-income and minority women than for wealthier white women.

Another study published in Environment International in May found that the adverse health effects of air pollutants on the fetus could be reversed with breastfeeding in the first four months of life. Where fetal development related to motor skills was affected by the inability to process the pollutants, breastfeeding appeared to mitigate it. The United Kingdom’s Daily Mail was reliably on hand to report on the study with the title “Another Reason Why Doctors Say Breast Is Best: Study Shows Breastfeeding Protects Babies From Air Pollution,” even though the study did not contain prescriptive claims about breastfeeding. In an article about the study on the University of Basque Country website, it is noted that the study participants came from the Goierri-Alto and Medio Urola valleys, both sites of heavy industrial activity. It appears that none of the publications covering the study considered the possibility that the best answer to not having air pollution negatively impact infant health would be to not have so much air pollution. Instead of communities taking responsibility for the health of their infants, they proffer workarounds to the mother, who is expected to heed their guidance, regardless of the financial or social obstacles in her way.

The scaremongering articles above are just a few of the ones that have come out recently, indicating that a reliably endless stream is likely finding its way to women who already have to deal with being pregnant or caring for a baby. There are, of course, tremendous benefits to research that provides insights on best practices for healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. But reporting on that research without offering context or limitations—knowing how much unsolicited advice pregnant women and mothers are already bombarded with—is about scaring women, not helping their babies. Rather than devoting time to the feelings people have about what women do during their pregnancies and in early parenthood, we could devote outrage at systems that fail to adequately protect them and their ability to make decisions on their own.

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