The mother of all scare stories

Image of Robert Shrimsley

As a rule, I try to avoid expressing sympathy for pregnant women. In the first place, in my limited experience, they are pretty good at expressing it for themselves and in the second – even when entirely on message – you face a barrage from mad mums of the net for daring to be a man presuming to have anything to say about motherhood. But this week that resolve weakened with the publication of the latest helpful advice to expectant mothers.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists offered up a paper on the “potential but unproven” risks to child health. Potential but unproven, eh? Still, with the RCOG brand, it was doubtless enough to send a shudder up the spine of every women of child-bearing age, especially once the BBC and Daily Mail got the bellows under it. What were these mysterious risks? Telephone masts? The moon’s gravitational pull? A new directive from the Bilderberg group?

Alas, no, these are everyday risks such as cars, food and washing. It’s the chemicals, see. They are everywhere; but don’t worry, mums, all you have to do is not eat tinned food, eschew shower gel and moisturiser, avoid new cars, fresh paint, new non-stick frying pans and, above all, new furniture. Of course, no paint or new furniture means the nursery is likely to have something of a minimalist feel to it, but all this materialism can turn a child’s head. Oh, and no new fabrics like – I don’t know, a maternity dress. Taken together the list of don’ts sounds something like the plot of Gremlins. There are three rules for pregnant women: don’t let them wash, don’t let them drive and never, ever feed them after midnight.

I’d assumed that my wife had been cautious, doing without unpasteurised cheese and wine during her pregnancies. Now it turns out she was virtually a member of the Hellfire Club with her reckless use of moisturiser, shower gel and fizzy drinks. Seriously, with a negligent attitude like that, it’s a wonder she didn’t give birth to Godzilla.

Lest you think the RCOG is scaremongering in highlighting unproven concerns about damage that may or may not be done by everyday chemicals, the authors stress that they published this paper only to counteract the “frequent scare stories” in the beastly media. Jolly decent of them; and what better way to help those poor scared mums make informed choices than to bombard them with unquantified assertions from a professional body. But in case you think them unscientific, the authors do stress that existing studies “do not support causality”, that many effects are “generally small” and that since “virtually all women” are exposed to these everyday chemicals there is no control group against which to measure these theories.

But even so they do recommend a “safety first” approach towards the killer frying pans, chairs, cars, cots and skin products. Once mothers are aware of these risks they can choose to ignore them but frankly if, after this report, you see a pregnant woman who isn’t unwashed, living off berries and living in a yurt in the garden, you might want to alert social services.

One might have given the RCOG the benefit of the doubt and accepted it was simply offering a careful evaluation of the “known unknowns” had it not been for this little gem early in the report: “The mother is the guardian of her baby’s development and future health … This important conceptual point may not be fully realised by many women that are pregnant.” Leaving aside the irritating use of “women that” instead of “women who”, this observation seems a tad wide of the mark. No doubt there are women who disregard even basic health advice such as not smoking (in which case they are hardly likely to fret about canned drinks) but experience suggests that this is one “important conceptual point” with which they do not struggle. It is this hectoring tone of mistrust that makes one suspicious of what the authors really intended to achieve with this vague, unhelpful paper.

But then, what do I know? This came from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and they’re the experts, aren’t they?

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