The media week started well, with the heartwarming story about Finnish baby boxes, which I’ll write about later. And then it all went downhill with the release of an amazing report from The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on Chemical exposures during pregnancy.
The RCOG “encourages the study and advancement of the science and practice of obstetrics and gynaecology.” On this occasion, they have taken this to an extreme, by advising women to avoid any possible exposure to chemicals, which may or may not have a harmful effect on their developing baby. While they do explicitly state that none of these harmful effects are proven, this is not how it comes across in the media. Dr Michelle Bellingham, co-author of the report, goes a step further on Radio 4 by asking what harm it does to follow this advice, to err on the side of caution.
So what harm does it do, to tell women not to use cleaning products, shower gel, or make up; not to buy new furniture (presumably including cots and car seats); not to eat any processed or packaged food? Astonishingly, this is presented as “practical” advice. The message it sends is that women themselves are of little importance compared with the package they are carrying. Our job is to breed, and we had better do it well, and if this means no deodorant for nine months, suck it up. In a world where we are made to feel uncomfortable using our breasts for their original purpose and we are expected to glow throughout pregnancy; we are now expected not to wash.
And as the report itself states, there is little or no evidence that any of these items actually do any harm, so this controlling advice is utterly spurious, and the idea that it is supposed to be in any way helpful to women is disingenuous.
Meanwhile any useful evidence-based guidelines are more likely to be ignored by women overwhelmed with conflicting and impractical instructions. On the one hand: good, we are grown-ups, we can make up our own minds. On the other hand, this is a real fail for those of us trying to provide evidence-based support during pregnancy and early parenthood.
The NHS’ excellent Behind The Headlines series takes the report apart here.
Sense About Science dismisses the usefulness of the report and the media coverage here.
Fran Yeoman responds as a new mother, in The Independent.
Risk Sense asks Is everything a risk when you’re pregnant?