Women! Know your place!

// 24 June 2010

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smoking.jpgNew pronouncement from the National Institute for Heath and Clinical Excellence (NICE): all pregnant women should be routinely breath-tested for carbon monoxide to see whether they’re telling the truth about whether they smoke, and how much.

Remember, women:

Image by Jeff Werner, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Josie // Posted 24 June 2010 at 12:11 pm

*headdesk multiple times*

Could NOT believe this story when I heard it this morning. All this treating mothers as brood mares always hits home to me just how undervalued actual motherhood is – you can’t be trusted to take care of yourself through your pregnancy and you’re probably lying to us, but taking full responsibility for the onerous task of raising a child and putting your own life on hold while you do it? That’s all good!

coldharbour // Posted 24 June 2010 at 12:27 pm

Just in time for the new government to strip away financial help for impoverished mothers and parents of young children. If the powers at be were interested in improving the health of children they would be providing serious reforms to end child poverty instead of blaming pregnant mothers. Shameless hypocrisy.

Sallyanne // Posted 24 June 2010 at 1:07 pm

And they’ve got funds for this kind of patronising, intrusive crap, but refuse to approve new drugs which would help seriously ill people. Trying to tell mothers to take this test doesn’t even fall within their job description.

Do pregnant women and mothers actually have any human rights left?!

Jennifer Drew // Posted 24 June 2010 at 1:07 pm

Once again focus is on male supremacist system controlling women’s reproductivity and conveniently ignoring fact men play 50% role in reproduction.

When are men going to be routinely told by public service announcements/posters etc. that their life style choices such as consumption of alcohol, smoking, eating the wrong types of food directly affects any child theyhave already fathered or will father.

Conveniently overlooked is the fact men play 50% role in reproduction and sperm are not inviolate but are negatively affected by the male’s lifestyle and habits.

maggie // Posted 24 June 2010 at 2:31 pm

Professor Mike Kelly, Director of the Centre for Public Health in Excellence at Nice said

And I’m paraphrasing you understand..

It should be noted that all women have the capacity to lie and should therefore be monitered routinely throughout pregnancy. Being women, they should also be responsible for the smoking habits of their partners (poor things).

Sarah // Posted 24 June 2010 at 2:43 pm

I don’t see the purpose of it really. We all know smoking during pregnancy (or at any other time) is not ideal health-wise, but I don’t see why those women who are unable/unwilling to quit would change their behaviour in response to a test telling them what they already know perfectly well.

Presumably you have the right to refuse the test anyway? So those more likely to have a problematic result would probably just refuse, or worse, start avoiding prenatal checks altogether if they’re going to get still more harrassment about their lifestyle.

The only valid point I can see is the one about inadvertent CO poisoning (faulty boiler etc) but that seems like something that would be of value to everyone, not just pregnant women, and indeed it would probably be good to know about it before you got pregnant, not after!

Sarah // Posted 24 June 2010 at 2:48 pm

Jennifer – good point, I was thinking on a related note about the issue of parents smoking around their born children. That’s also thought to be bad for their health, so I wonder if anyone thinks we should be rounding up all parents like criminals and subjecting them to tests to determine whether they’ve been smoking and lying about it? Or would that be an insulting and demeaning violation of a man’s privacy and right to do what he chooses with his own body in his own home?

Kim // Posted 24 June 2010 at 3:24 pm

Jennifer Drew, exactly!

Michael Rathbone // Posted 24 June 2010 at 4:08 pm

Interesting that it refers to the danger to “unborn babies” when the less emotionally charged “foetus” would be more correct.

Agree with every comment so far.

Kate // Posted 24 June 2010 at 4:38 pm

Too right jennifer – I can’t believe the amount of people who think how healthy the baby is, is entirely down to the woman. Old male sperm (ie an old dad) is one of the main causes of schizophrenia in a child.

Kate // Posted 24 June 2010 at 4:46 pm

I’d also like to add more to jennifer’s bit – why is it always women who are told off about alcohol consumption? And why are women allowed less? I mean, what about a 5ft man weak man allowed male (higher) units; and a strong, huge woman allowed less? I always wonder what the reason is for our lower allowance….

Oh I forgot thar, we cause rape with too much drink!

I’m sick of the govt generally taking the piss with women. Can always see the patriarchy creeping in with most mentions of women in passing laws. What else can they get away with?

corinne // Posted 24 June 2010 at 6:02 pm

i am sorry Michael Rathbone but i doubt most pregnant women see their unborn babies as a foetus.

i am sorry to say but i do agree with this idea. i have seen too many pregnant women smoking during their pregnancies. i was addicted to smoking until two yrs ago, knowing i was going to be a mum made me realise the risk in smoking or even being around smokers can have on my “foetus”. we all know it is bad to smoke whilest you are preggers but not everyone realises how bad it can affect the unborn baby. i was offered a ciggy by my friend when i was 3 months gone and the thought of my baby inhaling the smoke terrified me, i am sorry but if it was a case of drugs no one would be against the idea.

Jennifer Drew, its not only men in favour of this, there are many women who agree with the idea too. the fathers lifestyle wil not affect the foetus until it is born, until then the mother has the responsibility of keeping herself and the baby healthy.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 24 June 2010 at 6:47 pm

The interesting thing about so smoking breath tests is that they can also measure intake from passive smoking (which can register as a high as smoking yourself)- but I bet this campaign isn’t coupled with a warning for partners not to smoke around pregnant women.

Hannah // Posted 24 June 2010 at 7:32 pm

I was horrified when I read this on the guardian just now! I thought it was quite shocking that the woman from the Royal College of Midwives criticising the proposal also managed to shovel a healthy dose of sexism into her comment:

“Strategies for smoking cessation should apply to all women regardless of being pregnant,” said MacDonald

All *women*? Not just *everyone*? It seems that even the people supposed to be on our side still don’t think we’re responsible enough to be entrusted with our own reproductive capabilities. Reminds me of the folic acid in flour debate – ‘in case women get pregnant then…’ Not to mention how dumb the whole proposal is, I mean, testing a smoker’s CO levels to tell them that they smoke. Great use of NHS cash.


Mephit // Posted 24 June 2010 at 8:13 pm

(To Kate) As I understand it, women’s recommended limit for alcohol is lower than men’s because our bodies have a higher fat to water ratio than men’s, which means we can’t process the alcohol as easily. So although weight and body-size are also factors, it is apparently based on an actual physiological difference.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 24 June 2010 at 8:45 pm

I think the reasoning in most public service announcements is that women cannot process alchohol as fast as men do, and men, will of course, regard unconcious women as blow-up dolls with a pulse.

Becky // Posted 24 June 2010 at 9:33 pm

I’m so glad to see you’ve picked up on this. I was pretty enraged by this story this morning. Not only is it another example of pregnant women’s bodies being treated as public property, but it’s also painting women as duplicitous.

Surely it’ll achieve the opposite results of those intended: the desired targets will be more likely stay away for fear of being reprimanded. This is especially concerning because, realistically, it’s (multiply) disadvantaged women who are more likely to continue to smoke during pregnancy. Anything that puts greater distance between these women and public services, particularly at a time when they may need extra support, is going to do them a further disservice.

The guidance isn’t quite as drastic as the news reporting suggests, but there’s no getting away from the underlying view that it’s fair game for women to be humiliated into telling the truth. I really can’t see what will be achieved through this that wouldn’t be achieved by speaking in more general terms about the risks of cigarette smoking to a baby. What benefit is there in an approach that’s personal and accusatory.

Elmo // Posted 24 June 2010 at 10:55 pm

Kate, its because women have a higher body fat percentage and absorb alcohol more quickly-even a larger women may get drunk quicker than a smaller man.

Having said that, i still agree with you its all very unfair and victim blaming.

Siobhan // Posted 25 June 2010 at 1:23 am

This struck me as horribly condescending. As if pregnant women (or any women, for that matter) are so weak-minded that they are incapable of deciding for themselves whether or not to quit smoking. Yes, smoking can harm a foetus, but so, for instance, can air pollution. Does this mean that all pregnant women are to be issued with gasmasks or locked inside for the duration of the pregnancy? Then they can be tested for traces of carbon dioxode every week to see if they’ve been telling the truth about breathing or not.

Terri // Posted 25 June 2010 at 7:12 am

This is completely pointless! when i had my son (2008) there were actually pregnant women outside the hospital smoking. Everyone knows the dangers and some people will just carry on regardless!

Ruth // Posted 25 June 2010 at 8:12 am

Agree this is bloody awful stuff. Doesn’t surprise me but it does drive home the point about pregnant people = incubators and the like. Smoking during pregnancy isn’t a great idea but many manage to cut down (and remember that next time you see someone heavily pregnant with a ciggie in their mouth and want to judge; it might be the only one they’ve had that day and they used to have forty, for example) and those that aren’t going to aren’t going to be persuaded by a breath test – in fact, being honest, that’s the kind of thing that would make me so nervous and jittery that I’d… light up, of course!

We’ll see what the ConDems, with all their “down with this health and safety nonsense” do about this. For all the good stuff they did, Labour could also be pretty awful on nanny-state type stuff like this and I think one of the reasons the ConDems got in was because people were sick of the micro-management of families with young children from various government agencies (and who can forget their “brilliant” idea for “naughty girls’ homes”, sorry, mean residential care for teenage mothers). So you’d think that one of the few silver linings of the ConDem administration would be to boot out suggestions like this. But we shall see. Lots of parties are all for civil liberties and the like when they’re in opposition….

A few things to commenters:

“Women’s bodies” / “pregnant women” – (from several commenters) yes, it is usually women who get pregnant but sometimes it is not. Feminism needs to learn ways to talk about prejudice and oppression against people bearing/having children without rendering invisible trans men and non binary people who can/do also get pregnant and will therefore be affected by this draconian idea from NICE.

“…taking full responsibility for the onerous task of raising a child and putting your own life on hold while you do it” – I have a child. My life is not on hold. Raising my child is actually a very important part of my life, not all parents feel the same of course but I feel angry when it’s feminists who are suggesting otherwise.

masculinist // Posted 25 June 2010 at 9:52 am

Jennifer ….us men are told about how lifestlye affects our fertility . We are told that weight, alcohol, smoking, fitness , age , does affect quality of sperm. There have been plenty of artciles and information about this.

The bigger problem is that men dont care about their health full stop. No matter how much info is out there , nothing gets through. But thats for another thread on the M Word blog.

Kristin // Posted 25 June 2010 at 1:09 pm

Corinne, a father’s lifestyle WILL affect the foetus, and as early as conception! Smoking, consuming too much alcohol, a bad diet and being an older father are all factors which cause the quality of sperm to deteriorate. Which makes NICE look even more stupid and sexist to focus only on women.

lucy // Posted 25 June 2010 at 1:14 pm


“Old male sperm (ie an old dad) is one of the main causes of schizophrenia in a child.”

Reference please.

James Stoker // Posted 25 June 2010 at 3:14 pm

I’m sorry but I agree with this. In fact I would go one step further and have compulsory blood tests to check for traces of illegal substances. If it stops the Kerry Katona types of this world who think nothing of smoking, drinking, and drug taking though their pregnancy then so be it.

FeminaErecta // Posted 25 June 2010 at 3:26 pm

@Kate is that true about old sperm? I’ve never heard that (I’m not doubting you, just interested)

Cheryl Manton // Posted 25 June 2010 at 4:13 pm

Are there any feminists in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. If there are please get in touch with me. I cannot be the only one in Doncaster! I am currently active in Leeds but would like to be active in Doncaster. I would be really pleased if any women who believe in equality and want to do something about this mysoginistic society. Thanks, heres hoping.

Kate // Posted 25 June 2010 at 7:41 pm

I remember doing it during my degree. It’s strongly believed to be a cause. Sperm has replicated hundreds of times by 35 years. Which causes mutations.

I don’t undertake laborious research when someone rudely demands I give a reference. Open any introductory book covering the causes of schizophrenia yourself.

Kath // Posted 25 June 2010 at 10:58 pm

@Hannah Oh come on! She would have been asked a question about pregnant women smoking and replied that smoking cessation support should be available to all women. That’s not sexist it’s just answering within the terms of the question. Do we have to involve men every time we talk about women’s health? I’d hope not here

beth // Posted 26 June 2010 at 12:08 am

as kate hasn’t seen these yet, i put ‘paternal age schizophrenia’ in google and found this:


short version, kate is right about older dads.

long version, it’s not the age of the sperm – that’s created new every 12 weeks or so. it’s the age of the father, not the sperm.

other than that i have nothing to add. such a bloody stupid waste of money that could be used to do some good.

Mephit // Posted 26 June 2010 at 11:52 am

There have been some studies that suggest an increased risk of autism/schizophrenia where the biological father is older. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1273505.stm

Kez // Posted 26 June 2010 at 3:35 pm

Paternal age is one factor linked to a higher risk of schizophrenia occurring in the offspring. However, even with the increased risk, the chances are still very small. I’m not sure this really compares to the issue of smoking in pregnancy, which is known to have a negative effect on the health and development of the baby/foetus/whatever you prefer to call it.

Also, a man’s age is not exactly something he can do much about, other than decide not to try for a baby on the grounds of a remote chance that it might one day develop schizophrenia, while the decision to smoke or not smoke – or at least to try to give up – is very much within the power of the mother.

earwicga // Posted 26 June 2010 at 3:54 pm


Yes it is true – not well publicised. It would be good if somebody could dig out some studies.

I’ve found this article quickly which introduces ideas about how a man’s lifestyle affects his sperm quality: http://www.fasalaska.com/DadsBirthDefects.html

Which states: “Smoking can cause even more problems, both for Dad and the baby. The bodies of males who light up can produce free radicals, or molecules which damage cell parts and the chromosomes in sperm. Lower birth weight and increased risk of disease in babies has been connected with a father’s smoking.” But doesn’t cite any studies.

earwicga // Posted 26 June 2010 at 3:55 pm

Actually, if you google ‘sperm and birth defects’ there is a lot of information available to sift through.

Lynne Miles // Posted 26 June 2010 at 6:22 pm

Hi Cheryl

We have a page on groups and mailing lists here. There’s a group in Sheffield and there are various online options. If you want to put out a more general call you might sign up to UK Feminist Action and see if anyone responds …

lou // Posted 27 June 2010 at 1:18 am

hmmm I read the guidance and it says to use a CO monitor to discuss results and the effects with pregnant women. Surely this is just to illustrate to the mother the effect of smoking/broken boiler/passive smoking on something measurable (CO levels in mother’s blood) NOT to check whether women are lying….

A bit like checking blood sugar, or iron levels in people who you think might have a problem…

This sounds very little like treating women as incubators…though I suppose some health professionals may do that with or without this guidance….(Maybe I am missing something?)

aimee // Posted 27 June 2010 at 9:26 am

.. and what are they gonna do if we are smoking? Fucking sue us? I smoke. I hardly smoked at all when I was having my baby… but I had the odd one. I figured it was better to have one cigarette every so often to mitigate the enormous levels of stress I was under. Baby-harming stress which would preumably be exacerbated by being subjected to medical tests to make sure we’re ‘telling the truth’ whilst pregnant. D’you know what else? i even had a glass of wine every so often! That’s right. A whole glass. It wasn’t the end of the world. Women used to drink guinness though pregnancy because of the iron. The government can fuck off out of my body and so can everyone else who thinks they’re entitled to an opinion about what i should and shouldn’t do with my own body.

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