I remember participating in the “I’m-more-careful-than-you Olympics” when I was pregnant the same time a friend was. When I noticed her drinking hot chocolate, I said, “Did you know? There’s a lot of caffeine in chocolate.” When she noticed me eating a ham sandwich, she said, “I would never eat cold cuts. The nitrates are bad for the baby.” In retrospect, it was ridiculous. We were healthy women who didn’t drink or smoke and ate quite nutritiously—who eventually did have perfectly healthy babies. And it was extremely likely that we would. But what was clear to us was that our attention to risk was required, no matter how minute.
Many well-known “don’ts” during pregnancy are based on theoretical risks, with little or no evidence to back them up. For example, pregnant women have been told not to eat sushi for fear of parasites. But there is actually very little risk. The fish used for sushi is unlikely to have parasites and it is flash- frozen, killing the few parasites that may exist. The risk of food poisoning from eating sushi is one in two-million servings, whereas the risk of food poisoning from eating chicken is one in 25,000 servings. But we’ve never been advised to restrict eating chicken while pregnant, which shows that these “don’ts” can be nonsensical.
Maybe it’s not such a big deal that pregnant women don’t eat sushi when they really could. Better to be on the safe side, right? The problem I’m pointing to is that this constant monitoring, which women are supposed to do, has become a moral responsibility. It implies that a woman can have total control over her baby’s health and safe delivery if she just does everything right. When the reality is: she can’t control everything about her environment; even when she can, she may be worrying about the wrong things; and sometimes, without a knowable medical explanation, pregnancies don’t go well.
In this situation, the erroneous belief that women’s reproductive processes are inherently illnesses that require medical treatment hurts women because it erroneously creates the expectation that this treatment is infallible, and it is therefore within each woman’s power to produce a perfect pregnancy if she will only follow all the rules—both reasonable and not reasonable.
The exaggeration and misperception of risk also keeps pregnant women from doing things that would improve their health. Doctors strongly urge pregnant women to be vaccinated for the flu, however, only 15 percent comply. There is solid evidence that maternal flu vaccination causes no negative outcomes for the fetus. But because women mistakenly suspect there is a risk, they put themselves at higher risk of contracting the flu—which is more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant women than nonpregnant women, and can cause preterm labor and delivery.
Some women with severe asthma stop using their medication because they are worried about harm to the fetus. However, uncontrolled asthma is associated with dangerous repercussions for both the mother and the fetus, like early miscarriage, uterine hemorrhage, prematurity, and low birthweight. Studies show that women with well-controlled asthma have babies that are just as healthy as women without asthma. Still, the presumption of ever-present danger keeps some women from using medication that is proven to be beneficial.
The idea that pregnancy creates a such a fragile state works against women and ironically keeps them from doing things that will actually improve their health and the health of the baby. More than ever, women need to be educated consumers of health information.
To learn more about this topic, buy my book, “The Hormone Myth: How Junk Science, Gender Politics, and Lies About PMS Keep Women Down” at bookstores everywhere.