Artillery Row

Stop infantilising women

The WHO seems hellbent on making the stress of pregnant women’s lives even greater

My mother would, on occasion, enjoy a half pint of Guinness during her pregnancy with me. She had been told that the iron would be good for the baby, and, more importantly, she liked the taste. Back then, a pregnant woman sitting in a pub reading a paper wasn’t a cause for outrage. Nine months later, all 10.8 pounds of me came screaming into the world with no harm done — but I didn’t inherit her taste for stout.

And yet, despite years of women doing a great job of growing, birthing and raising kids, there are still some who doubt our ability to get it right. The authors of a new “alcohol action plan” at the World Health Organisation (WHO) are among those doubters.

WHO and others seem hellbent on making the stress of pregnant women’s lives even greater

Released as a first draft, the WHO’s plan to crack down on alcohol covered everything from teen drinking limits to calls for an alcohol-free week (just what we need after 15 months of enforced unsociability). But squirrelled away in “action area 2” covering “advocacy, awareness and commitment” was a phrase that caused a stir: the WHO advised that “appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among… pregnant women and women of childbearing age”.

Every woman, pregnant or not, knows that excessive drinking is harmful — especially to a growing foetus. But, if like me and many other women, you started your period in year six, childbearing age could reach from 11 to 50. According to the WHO, women should basically never touch a drop of alcohol, just in case they might be pregnant.

The phrasing of the document has caused righteous anger among many women. But very little will shake the WHO’s commitment to moral panics. In an interview on BBC Woman’s Hour yesterday morning, Dag Rekve from the WHO’s alcohol, drugs and addictive behaviours unit told presenter Emma Barnett that she’d simply read the sentence wrong — they were merely suggesting that “appropriate attention” be paid to women’s booze habits.

Earlier in the programme, Nieve Fitzgerald, professor of alcohol policy at the University of Stirling, defended the action plan, claiming that the backlash was orchestrated by the alcohol industry, and that this was simply about giving women the information they needed to make the right decisions. It seems that, without the help of professors or international bureaucrats, women would be unable to think sensibly about the sacrifices they were willing to make for the benefit of their unborn child.

It might be easy to scoff at the ridiculousness of one bit of suggested policy, but the WHO is not the only organisation creating a climate of mistrust around pregnant women. Last year, the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published proposals for regulation changes which would include recording every unit of alcohol consumed by women before and during pregnancy — and then transferring those notes to the child’s record without consent.

The bourgeois earth-mother movement demonises anyone who chooses to formula-feed their baby

In short, even the most minor and infrequent instances of alcohol consumption would be registered as a black mark against an expectant mother. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which runs campaigns relating to women’s freedom in fertility, pregnancy and abortion services, has repeatedly pointed out that there is little evidence to suggest that low levels of alcohol consumption cause any harm to a foetus. But rather than deal with the facts, the WHO and others seem hellbent on making the stress of pregnant women’s lives even greater.

There is a growing alarmism about pregnant women and mothers. A burgeoning bourgeois earth-mother movement has managed to demonise anyone who chooses to formula-feed their baby — there are even laws suppressing advertising in case women are influenced to stop breastfeeding. Campaigns led by disability activists demand that pregnant women be prevented from accessing tests aimed at checking the health and wellbeing of their baby, in case some might choose to abort because of Down’s syndrome or other genetic abnormalities.

Abortion law in the UK is still excessively prohibitive, demanding that a woman convince two doctors of her ill-health or insanity as a means to beg for the right to terminate a pregnancy. These WHO recommendations are simply another example of officialdom mistrusting women’s ability to make sensible, logical and moral decisions about their own lives and bodies.

The infantilisation of women has an effect on the way society judges us and values our freedom

We can’t just blame the policy makers. Feminists make a lot of noise about the patriarchy, institutionalised sexism, and the constant threat that women live under. But what they don’t realise is that the infantilisation of women — from suggestions that we need chaperones when in close proximity with strange men to having laws passed to criminalise dirty comments from blokes hanging out of car windows — is having a knock-on effect on the way society judges us and values our freedom.

If we continue to assert that women are too feeble, too influenceable and too incapable of standing on our own two feet, the logic follows that we shouldn’t be trusted to make serious decisions about our own futures. The WHO thinks we need labels on beer bottles and action plans from international organisations to be good mothers. We need to reckon with this neo-Victorian, sexist portrayal of women as child-like and in need of constant guidance. It’s time to peel off the beer-bottle labels and raise a glass of something strong to women’s freedom.

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