excerpts from Using Pregnancy to Control Women by Ruth Hubbard. Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, October 1990, Vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 16-18.
Strange things have been happening to this culture’s ideas about pregnancy. More and more, physicians, judges, legislators, and the media are presenting pregnancy as a contest in which pregnant women and the embryos and fetuses we nourish in our bodies are represented as lined up on opposing sides. But construing the “interests” of embryos and fetuses as opposed to those of the women whose bodies sustain them makes no sense biologically or socially. A pregnant woman’s body is an organic unit, of which the fetus is a part. She shares with her fetus one blood supply as well as other essential functions. Any foods or digestive products, hormones or drugs, or anything else that involves either can have an impact on the other.
This does not mean that pregnant women should scan all their feelings, thoughts, and actions for possible ill effects on the fetus within them. It is probably true that stresses they experience will be transmitted to the fetus, but that includes the stresses and anxieties that would arise from trying to live a life free of stress and anxiety. What it does mean, however, is that it is counterproductive to heap needless stress on pregnant women by worrying them about possible sources of harm to their fetus and by subjecting them to often still-experimental tests and procedures to detect fetal disabilities for which they or the fetus are not specifically predicted to be at risk. Some of today’s stresses of pregnancy are evoked by exaggerated concerns and watchfulness intended to avert relatively unlikely risks.
Precisely because anything that is done to a pregnant woman or to her fetus has an impact on both, pregnant women must be the ones to decide whether to carry their pregnancy to term. Only they can know whether they are prepared to sustain the pregnancy as well as the future relationship to their child.
As part of this trend of looking upon embryos and fetuses as though their “interests” could be separated from those of the women whose bodies sustain them, we have been witnessing: (1) prosecutions of pregnant women or of women who have recently given birth for so-called fetal abuse; (2) court-mandated Caesarean sections; and (3) so-called fetal protection practices in which employers bar women of child-bearing age (defined in one instance as 16 to 54 years) from certain kinds of jobs that are said to put a potential fetus at risk, in case these women become pregnant.
I want to look at these three[sic] situations and then speculate about why this is happening now and why only in the United States.
“DISTRIBUTING DRUGS TO A MINOR”
Across the nation in the last few years women have been charged with the crime of “distributing drugs to a minor via the umbilical cord” or similarly Orwellian accusations. Since the legal status of the fetus is uncertain, most of these have not stood up in court. Presumably for this reason, in Florida, Jennifer Johnson, a woman who had just birthed her baby, so that it was now legally a born child, was charged with delivering an illicit drug to a minor via the umbilical cord while it was still attached to the cord. Despite the absurdity of this construct, she was convicted.
It seems reasonable to assume that drug use during pregnancy can harm the fetus, though it is not at all clear how dangerous it is. The designation “crack baby” usually is not the result of health-care workers noting behavioral abnormalities in a newborn. It came on the scene because a test was devised that can detect metabolic products resulting from women’s drug use close to the time of birth. As a result, babies of mothers who fall into certain “suspect” categories – young, unmarried, poor, of color – are tested more or less routinely and especially in public hospitals. (In one recent instance where the test result was challenged by the young woman and her mother – though not until after the young woman and her baby had been forcibly separated – it turned out that the drugs the test detected were medically administered to the woman during labor.)
[…] Even if we go with the common wisdom that drugs taken by pregnant women are likely to harm the fetus, the problem is that very few drug-treatment programs accept women, fewer yet pregnant women, and even fewer, women on Medicaid. In fact, Jennifer Johnson’s sentence in Florida included as a condition of her fifteen-year probation that she enter a drug-treatment program, something she had tried, but been unable, to do while pregnant. Another was that she be gainfully employed, something she had also tried, but been unable, to achieve. In other words, she was first victimized by an unresponsive system and then blamed for not availing herself of the remedies she had tried, but been unable, to obtain. She ended up convicted for the government’s negligence and neglect.
It is important to realize that just about all the women who have been prosecuted for prenatal injuries to their babies have been poor and of color. Most of them have had little or no prenatal care and have given birth in public or teaching hospitals. None has been a white, suburban drug user, in the care of a private obstetrician. The so-called war on drugs requires public hospitals to report instances of suspected drug use, while private physicians can avoid doing so. Obviously, this policy is counterproductive, since it will make women who could benefit from medical and social services avoid them for fear of being declared unfit to care for their children.
FETAL ENDANGERMENT IN THE WORKPLACE
Reproductive hazards in the workplace were cited in 1977 as grounds for requiring five women at the American Cyanamid plant in Willow Island, West Virginia, to be sterilized, if they wanted to retain jobs paying $225 per week plus substantial overtime instead of being transferred to janitorial jobs at $175 per week with no extras. None of these women was pregnant or planning a pregnancy, yet without the operation, they were considered “potentially pregnant.” A number of such situations have arisen since, and currently the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal against the lower court decision supporting Johnson Controls’ “fetal protection” policy…
The grounds for barring the women have been that the work involves exposure to lead or other chemicals or radiation that could endanger a fetus, despite the fact that these agents also put men’s reproductive processes, and specifically sperm, at risk. And these situations have only occurred relative to higher-paying jobs, traditionally occupied by men, to which women have been newcomers. Comparable concerns have not been raised about women employed in traditionally female jobs in which they are routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals or radiation, such as surgical operating room or x-ray technician, nurse, beautician, or indeed, clerical or domestic worker. Whether the women are planning to have children appears to be irrelevant. Rather, fertile women, as a class, are always considered “potentially pregnant.” This is just one more way to keep women out of higher-paying jobs by dressing up sex discrimination as fetal protection. Of course, it also enhances the status of the fetus as a person, while relegating all women, pregnant or not, to the status of fetal carriers.
These kinds of “protections” make no sense from the viewpoint of health, because any substance that endangers a fetus is also dangerous for workers – female and male. But is cheaper for companies to fire “potentially pregnant” workers (which means any woman who cannot prove that she is infertile) than to clean up the workplace so that it becomes safe for everyone. Employers claim they are barring women because they are afraid of lawsuits should a worker whose baby is born with a disability, claim that disability was brought on by workplace exposure. But, in fact, no such suit has ever been filed and, considering the problems Vietnam veterans have experienced in suits claiming reproductive damages from exposure to Agent Orange and farm workers from exposure to toxic pesticides, such a suit is not likely to present a major risk to employers.
So, why are these various fetal protection activities happening and why only in the United States? Indeed, why do many cities and states post warnings in bars and subways, now also appearing on liquor bottles, that read: “Warning! Drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy can cause birth defects”? (Note: any alcoholic beverage, no specification of how much or of alcohol content, and no mention of possible detrimental effects on sperm.) No doubt, the antiabortion movement has helped raise “the fetus” to mythic proportions. Perhaps also prenatal technologies, especially ultrasound imaging, have made fetuses seem more real than before. Not so long ago, physicians could find out about a fetus’s health only by touching or listening to a pregnant woman’s distended belly. Now, in the minds of many people, fetuses have an identity separate from that of the woman whose body harbors them, since it is not unusual for their future parents to know their sex and expected health status.
But that doesn’t explain why these activities are peculiar to the United States. Europeans often assume that anything that is accepted in the United States today will be accepted in Europe tomorrow – or, if not tomorrow, the next day. But pregnancy is not like Coca-Cola. It is embedded in culture and framed by a network of economic and social policies. We cannot understand the profound differences between the ways pregnant women are regarded here and in other Western countries unless we face the fact that this country alone among industrialized nations has no coherent programs of health insurance, social and economic supports for pregnant women, maternal and child care, and protection of workers’ rights. This has been true since the beginning of this century, but the situation has been aggravated since the dismemberment of the, however meager, social policies that existed before the Reagan era. Recent pronouncements by “drug czar” William Bennett and Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, urging that drug use during pregnancy be taken as prima facie evidence of child abuse, are among the ways the administration is shifting blame for the disastrous economic and social policies that have resulted in huge increases in poverty, homelessness, and unprecedented levels of drug use onto the victims of these policies.
While the economic circumstances of women and children, especially those of color, are deteriorating and disparities in access to services and in infant mortality rates are increasing, what a fine trick it is to individualize these conditions and blame women for selfishly putting their fetuses at risk. Yet taking women to court for fetal endangerment creates more low-income women and more babies that will be warehoused in hospitals or shuttled among an insufficient number of adequate foster homes by overloaded social-service systems. These are not solutions. They are merely ways of diverting attention from the enormous systemic problems that have been aggravated by the Reagan-Bush years and of shifting blame for the consequences onto the most vulnerable people.
Again and again, studies have documented the deleterious effects of adverse economic and social conditions on maternal and infant health. But it continues to be far easier to get money for yet another study than for the policies and programs that could ameliorate or, indeed, eliminate the dismal conditions that jeopardize the health and welfare of women and children.
WHAT TO DO?
We have to take whatever political action we can to support the efforts of various community organizations and to pressure government agencies at all levels to provide the economic, social, and educational supports that will let women and children live above the poverty level, not below it. We need what other industrialized nations have: adequate education, job security, proper nutrition, subsidized housing, universal health care, accessible drug-treatment programs, and so on. The lack of these is responsible for the disproportionate U.S. infant mortality and disability rates, not women’s neglectful behavior during pregnancy.
A friend recently suggested that, rather than being sued, pregnant women should sue in the name of “the fetus” for access to the economic, social and health measures that are necessary for successful pregnancy outcomes. Of course, this concept suffers from the fact that it, too, makes the fetus a person. Furthermore, such suits probably would not hold up in court, since, while the U.S. Constitution guarantees certain freedoms and rights, it does not guarantee the economic and social conditions necessary for everyone to be able to exercise them. Despite this, a well-orchestrated campaign of this sort could educate and politicize people about the shallowness and hypocrisy of the government’s supposed efforts at fetal protection, and so could be used to rally support for the kinds of measures that can improve the needlessly dismal economic and social circumstances in which large sectors of the U.S. population live.
Ruth Hubbard is Professor Emerita of Biology at Harvard University, where she was the first woman to hold a tenured professorship position in biology.
Hubbard was born Ruth Hoffmann in Vienna, Austria and escaped Nazism as a teenager. With her family, she moved to the Boston area and she became a biologist. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1944, earning a degree in biochemical sciences. She was married to Frank Hubbard from 1942 to 1951.
As a research fellow at Harvard in the years after World War II, she worked under George Wald, investigating the biochemistry of retinal and retinol. Wald shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1967 for his discoveries about how the eye works. She received a Ph.D. in biology from Radcliffe in 1950, and in 1952, a Guggenheim fellowship at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, Denmark.
During her active research career from the 1940s to the 1960s, she made important contributions to the understanding of the biochemistry and photochemistry of vision in vertebrates and invertebrates. In 1967, she and Wald shared the Paul Karrer Medal for their work in this area.
She and Wald married in 1958. Hubbard and Wald became the parents of two children: a son, musician and music historian Elijah Wald, and a daughter, Deborah Wald. She also has two grandchildren.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hubbard's interests shifted away from research science toward social and political issues. In her book The Politics of Women's Biology, she wrote that she had been a "devout scientist" from 1947 until the late 1960s, but the Vietnam War and the women's liberation movement led her to change her priorities. Also, after being promoted in 1973 from what she called the "typical women's ghetto" of "research associate and lecturer" positions to a tenured faculty position at Harvard, she felt increased freedom to pursue new interests.
She became known as a strong critic of sociobiology. Geneticist Richard Lewontin has said, "No one has been a more influential critic of the biological theory of women's inequality than Ruth Hubbard." In a 2006 essay entitled "Race and Genes," she wrote:
It is beyond comprehension, in this century which has witnessed holocausts of ethnic, racial, and religious extermination in many parts of our planet, perpetrated by peoples of widely different cultural and political affiliations and beliefs, that educated persons—scholars and popularizers alike—can come forward to argue, as though in complete innocence and ignorance of our recent history, that nothing could be more interesting and worthwhile than to sort out the “racial” or “ethnic” components of our thoroughly mongrelized species so as to ascertain the root identity of each and every one of us. And where to look for that identity if not in our genes?
In her essay "Science and Science Criticism," published in 2001 as a chapter of The Gender and Science Reader, Hubbard iterates that she is a scientist and states that "[n]ature is part of history and culture", but not vice versa. She goes on to say that scientists are largely unable to grasp the concept of nature being part of life--- noting how she needed several years to understand the statement. Going into her scientific history, the narrator mentions how she originally never questioned how her efforts fit into society. Narrowing her focus, she exposits that the Vietnam-era women's rights and women's liberation movements helped teach her of the roles of science in society.
She continues forth with the various means of debate for both sides. One notable instance from men is when they revive various old and unfounded biological theories on women to justify the typical subservient positions of the female gender. Hubbard even refers to the means of debate as "breathing new life" into old theories and assumptions. She further exposits the issues revolving around gender equality that were mainly brought to her attention by how she and her colleagues suddenly started getting promoted from their "ghetto" lab positions right into proper titles. She promptly stresses that "[she believes] the subject of women's biology is profoundly political", explaining away the book's title as she does so. Proceeding onward her desire to go beyond "defining [women as a whole] as victims of male power and dominance," and pushes for women everywhere to show independence and individuality while learning to accept and embrace the biology that's continuously used by men to undermine them. To follow up, she goes on to talk about women's health activists re-educating women on the functions of their body and goes on to encourage women to use the re-education to attain great power by eliminating the footholds of male misinformation and misrepresentation of their bodies.
The essay asserts that women scientists must ultimately and paradoxically turn away from the sciences to make their stand against male supremacy as opposed to the many female and feminist poets, novelists, and artists that can illustrate their points clearly and easily. She notes that politics seems to vanish within the sciences, exemplifying this point by noting social classes aren't a specific category listed under US health studies. The point she makes is that social and political realities can be blended or integrated subtly into all mediums. The subtlety of the integration ultimately creates great difficulty in discerning fact from prejudice. In addition, artists, novelists, and poets can compose their works without being victim to review under the funding agencies that makes the use of scientific fact tedious and less effective. The author leads in to surmise that the issues around women's rights must be raised and brought into public focus. After bringing up how science integrates itself into culture, she exemplifies the point by noting the prominence of biological terms in historical terminology and alluringly points out a biologist's tendency to place humanity above all other animals--- not unlike how men view women and their desire for equality. She raises the question of whether or not women can improve the sciences but makes an attempt to bring into attention her belief that women can make an impact. Hubbard closes by saying that scientists never want their work to be forgotten and lost, and that she sides with feminism for political insight and analytic testing on the scientific assumptions about women.