Biographies and abstracts

Policy Pregnancy: Who should be a mother? Conference

Session 2: Bad bodies, bad choices? Behavioural advice and the pregnant woman

Why take the risk? Governing pregnancy through maternal sacrifice

Dr Pam Lowe, School of Languages and Social Science, Aston University

The idea of maternal sacrifice is central to the management of women’s reproductive bodies. Maternal sacrifice is both a symbolic and practical requirement of suffering and/or selflessness in which individual women ‘naturally’ put the needs and welfare of any existing or potential children first. During pregnancy, the cultural script of the vulnerable foetus combined with idealization of good motherhood means that women are expected to prioritize the welfare of the foetus over their own health, lives and desires. The development of risk consciousness, in which eliminating risk rather than assessing the balance of probabilities, means that the only ‘reasonable’ choice for women is to enact the precautionary principle.

Hence pregnant women, as mothers-to-be need to demonstrate their commitment to idealized motherhood by following biomedical regimes of advice and surveillance. Drawing of the examples of alcohol consumption and food ‘rules’ this paper will argue that women are instructed to make the right sacrifices to make to optimize foetal wellbeing, even if there is little evidence of harm. Moreover, risks that were once associated with particular social group can be democratized to the population more generally. Whilst women may adhere to or reject all or any of the health advice on food or other risks, they still have to engage with the normative gaze of surveillance from both the medical professionals and the public more generally. Visibly pregnant women who fail to display appropriate pregnant embodiment leave themselves open to public sanction. The individualization and responsibilization of pregnant women for the health and welfare of the developing foetus ignores both structural issues, such as poverty, and the idea that women have independent lives.

Session 3: Pregnancy surveillance and the medical profession

Capturing the womb: Pregnancy surveillance in early twentieth-century Britain

Dr Salim Al-Gailani, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

Amid wider efforts to improve healthcare provision for mothers and babies in Britain on the eve of the First World War, public health officials mooted the prospect of making pregnancy a notifiable condition, like some infectious diseases. Although officially frowned upon for both ethical and practical reasons, ‘notification of pregnancy’ schemes were introduced in various guises by a number of local authorities from around 1916. Examining the prominent, and hitherto overlooked, debates that these proposals generated reveals that controversies over notification were briefly the key battleground in negotiations over the meaning of ‘antenatal care’ at this formative moment in the development of maternity and child welfare services. They offer valuable evidence of how demarcation disputes between occupational groups of various degrees of authority, including midwives, general practitioners, health visitors and Medical Officers of Health, were folded into gendered and class-based concerns about state power, family privacy, and professional ethics.