Policing Pregnancy: A one-day conference on maternal autonomy, risk and responsibility
Wednesday 13 April 2016
Royal College of Physicians, London
The case for abstinence is not based on evidence. It is based on the logic of better safe than sorry. It is tempting, especially for an expectant mother, to say that any risk, however small or theoretical, is too great. But that is absurd. Everything about light drinking during pregnancy makes it the kind of theoretical risk that Americans are unlikely to evaluate sensibly. Doctors are innately cautious and made more so by lawyers hovering overhead with malpractice lawsuits (The Guardian, 1991).
The comment above appeared in a feature article in The Guardian newspaper in 1991, discussing advice given to American women about drinking and pregnancy. Twenty-five years later official opinion in Britain – and many other countries – has shifted to accept everything the author of this comment decried as ‘absurd’. ‘Better safe than sorry’ has become the central plank of advice to women.
This conference provides the opportunity for those concerned about the organisation of advice and also provision of care to pregnant women around this motto, to come together and discuss the issues raised.
A key observation made by those who have already raised concerns about risk-consciousness and pregnancy is that ‘better safe than sorry’ often brings with it a powerful impulse both to moralise about the behaviour and attitudes of pregnant woman, and also bring in new forms of regulation and oversight of pregnant women. The US sociologist Howard Becker wrote that moralisation is followed by policing, and a central aim of this event is to bring to light and assess the tension that exists between efforts to promote awareness of risk and the resultant policing of pregnancy, and the autonomy of pregnant woman.
The topic of drinking and pregnancy forms the starting point for event, and discussion will cover developments in countries that have conventionally been thought of as the cultural and policy opposite to the United States, for example Scandinavia. We are delighted to welcome Lynn Paltrow to open the Symposium, with a lecture on the policing of pregnant women in the US, which will discuss alcohol and other drugs.
Afternoon sessions will consider topics where relate trends seem apparent and consider how developments contest the principle of autonomy. A roundtable session will discuss how food intake has become a locus for policy making through elevated concerns about overweight and obesity, and the conference will end with a discussion about the ways in which women’s birth choices and experiences are increasingly heavily policed.
The Policing Pregnancy conference is a collaboration between British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Birthrights and the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies. The event is of interest to practitioners, advocates, academics, policy makers, journalists – and anyone else who is concerned about the expansion of risk thinking and its effects for the autonomy and choice-making ability of women.