Responsibility, The Maternal-Fetal Conflict, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Pregnant by Frank de KleinePregnant, a photo by Frank de Kleine on Flickr.

Rhetoric concerning responsibility and the Maternal-Fetal Conflict can strongly be detected in the paranoia and precautions surrounding Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. But before diving into this conversation, I pose the bigger question surrounding responsibility of the body and policing that responsibility. Into Our Own Hands; The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990 by Sandra Morgen explores women taking agency over their bodies as a means to gain autonomy of their health. In her work, Morgen notes the Cooperative Jane Collective and how their knowledge led to form an autonomous health collective conducting procedures previously deemed suitable only to be performed by a medical professional. Authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English illuminate the displacement of midwives and the almost altogether removal of women from the medical discourse and the birthing place in their work For Her Own Good; Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women. The authors note how the medicalization of birth separated women not only from their midwives but from their bodies as well.

The common Janes and the everyday midwives these authors note, question what we deem “medical professional” within our society. In other words, who is harboring all this medical knowledge?

This brings me back to my original question and I bring into the discussion a personal example: While waiting tables in the East Village, I had a pregnant customer imbibing on a glass of white wine while her dinner date sipped a margarita. Both drinks were nearing empty. The responsibility fell on my shoulders whether or not it was “okay” to serve this woman another glass of white.

All too obnoxiously often we are reminded of the effects of fetal alcohol poisoning within our society – commercials, advertisements, news specials, backs of bottles, etc.

Do not drink if pregnant by whatleydude

Do not drink if pregnant, a photo by whatleydude on Flickr.

I was able to get out of the situation unscathed (and maintained my tip average), but was disturbed by new unwanted responsibility and the lack of knowledge I had on a commonly known topic. Why was I suddenly forced into a situation where I had to police another woman’s body based on information I didn’t really know or even know where it came from in the first place! How far was I removed from this fetus I somehow felt responsible for and, more importantly, how far away was I from the mother?

In all the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome visual warnings heaved onto our societal shoulders, rarely do we see the face of the mother and rarely do we discuss the Maternal-Fetal Conflict. Most images are shot from the neck down, with the mother’s face eliminated. So if she doesn’t have a face, she has no personhood.

NOW (National Organization of Women) continues to honor the personhood of the mother in the Maternal-Fetal Conflict and social stigmas surrounding responsibility in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and these help to strengthen women’s resistance, but where is the knowledge originating? To echo the authors above, autonomy needs to extend into the laboratory and the results need to fall on all ears.