Artillery Row

Pressure baby

If anyone is going to be over-cautious about vaccines, it’s pregnant women

Becoming a mother changes the way you think about yourself — especially when your baby hasn’t been born yet. You worry about whether you’re eating the right things, reading the right books or stretching too far in your antenatal yoga class. When a woman wants a baby, she prioritises everything about the health and wellbeing of that child — often sacrificing her own lifestyle and preferences in the process.

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that so many pregnant women have abstained from getting vaccinated in the last six months. Advice from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists around Christmas time last year stated that only women who meet “the definition of being clinically extremely vulnerable” should get the vaccine.

We are making pregnancy a terrifying and pressure-filled nine months when it doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be

“There is insufficient evidence to recommend routine use of Covid-19 vaccines during pregnancy,” the organisation claimed. Just four months later, the RCOG changed its advice encouraging “all pregnant women” to be “offered the Covid-19 vaccine at the same time as the rest of the population”. The change in advice was spurred on by the fact that 130,000 pregnant women had been given the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccine in the US without complications or safety concerns.

If you’re the kind of person that checks the RCOG press statements regularly, that might have been enough for you. But figures showing that “99 per cent of pregnant women admitted to hospital with Covid-19 are unvaccinated” reveal that many women will not have been convinced by the updated advice. This doesn’t make them anti-vaxxers — I myself abstained from getting the vaccine (though I was happily and jealously sticking it in other arms as a volunteer).

The fertility clinic I was attending followed the official advice given by the original RCOG advice against vaccinations for women who were or trying to be pregnant. It was only until an old family friend and GP told me there was no evidence to suggest it would affect my ability to get pregnant that I happily signed myself up for my jab. Rumours about concerns linking to fertility and the effect of the vaccine on periods (often publicised by quite reputable feminist commentators on social media) have also dented some women’s confidence in the safety of the vaccine.

The bemusement among some commentators wondering why so many pregnant women are unvaccinated (and at least 70 of them ending up in intensive care with Covid-19 according to figures from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre) is irritating. If anyone is going to be over-cautious about what medicines they take, it’s pregnant women. Rather than looking at whether the original RCOG advice was correct, and whether there could have been more to explain why the advice changed and engage in outreach programmes to make sure pregnant women were getting vaccinated, some seem happy to chalk this up to conspiratorial sentiments. It’s understandable that some pregnant women might have read stories about miscarriage rates on the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) Yellow Card scheme and decided to play it safe than sorry when it came to the vaccine, even when these scare stories were debunked by fact checkers.

The minute a woman becomes pregnant, her freedom and her value of life is suddenly undervalued

The fact that so many women were risking their own health (contracting Covid-19 in the later stages of pregnancy can be extremely dangerous) is unsurprising — not just because of the natural instinct of mothers to put their kids first. We heap endless pressure on women’s shoulders, indulging in scaremongering about the minutiae of their lives and how it might affect their unborn child. As I wrote for The Critic in June, the World Health Organisation recently came under fire for suggesting that any “pregnant women and women of childbearing age” should be prevented from drinking — despite there being no evidence that the occasional, moderate drink has any effect on fertility or pregnancy.

Women undergoing fertility treatment are constantly berated about their Body Mass Index (trust me, I know) despite it being widely questioned as an accurate means of measuring women’s health and weight. In the UK, 96 per cent of CCGs refuse women fertility treatment if their BMI is over 30 (only 32 CCGs make the same restrictions for the male partner). Rather than helping women to enjoy their pregnancies, we seem to want to panic them into counting calories, obsessing over the dangers of a glass of wine and panicking about whether they are letting their bump listen to enough Tchaikovsky.

It doesn’t stop when women pop, either. The European fetish for breastfeeding, including bans on the advertisement of formula milk, ends up demonising women who decide that the bottle gives them more flexibility than being tied to a breast pump.

Everyone from royals to hippy counsellors are obsessed with the importance of early years, with the Duchess of Cambridge launching a new project to get parents to understand that “a child’s experiences from conception through their first five years will go on to shape their next 50.” What this psychobabble really means is that women’s actions from the moment they knock boots to the time they ship their kid off to nursery should be under surveillance in case the lack of “skin-to-skin” contact they gave their baby might be used to explain their child’s inability to get a job 20 years later. The minute a woman becomes pregnant, her freedom and her value of life is suddenly undervalued.

Health bodies should have done more to explain the reasons why advice changed when it came to the vaccine

There will be many lessons to learn from the last 17 months of the pandemic. If there is anything to glean from the confusing and dangerous handling of information when it comes to vaccine advice and pregnancy, it’s that we are making pregnancy a terrifying and pressure-filled nine months when it doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be. The sacrificing of women’s health, wellbeing and quality of life while pregnant for the sake of public-health messaging is reminiscent of the old sexist approach to childbearing — that it didn’t matter what happened to the mother, as long as a bouncing baby was produced at the end of it.

Health bodies should have done more to explain the reasons why advice changed when it came to the vaccine, to prevent some of the more dangerous anti-vaccine conspiracies from denting women’s confidence to come forward and get jabbed. In relation to everything from fertility to pregnancy to abortion law and access to contraception, women’s bodily autonomy is shrouded in deliberate obfuscation. We don’t trust women to decide when they need to take the pill, to decide when they want to get pregnant and with whom, and to make judgement calls about the balance between their health and that of their unborn child while preparing to become a mother.

We shouldn’t have had to wait for women to turn up in ICU wards, begging for ventilators, to tell us that our approach to women’s reproductive rights and freedom of choice is sorely lacking.

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