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Want a Healthy Country? Start With Healthy Pregnancies.

ceresWriter Annie Murphy Paul has been covering a lot of pregnancy bases since the release of her book, “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.” (You can read Ceridwen’s review here, and a Babble excerpt from the book here.

We couldn’t ask for a much better mouthpiece to advocate for prenatal needs. Paul is smart and thoughtful without being highfalutin’ and hard to read. Her eloquent and informative work is a real eye-opener… and a call to action. This weekend, she took her pregnant-woman-positive agenda to the Washington Post. In an Op-Ed, she calls our country on its hypocrisy.  We’ve got this fixation on pregnancy. We pore over the pages of bump-watching magazines, rate the sexiest pregnant celebrities, await the coming Hollywood version of its most popular (and most hated) guidebook.But for all our obsession, What are we doing for the REAL pregnant women out there? According to Paul, not nearly enough, or not the right things. And as her book and many subsequent pieces explain, what happens to a woman during pregnancy can directly translate to the health of coming generations.

Enough with the pregnancy fetish. Let’s put that energy to work making healthier pregnancies and healthier babies. Because the care of pregnant women is primary to the future of our country and its population. The new science of developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) makes a strong case for the prenatal period as a singularly important time for human health. Paul asks:

“So why isn’t this critical window one of our top health-care priorities?”

For one thing, we’re much more of a fix-it culture than a prevent-it one. Though there’s certainly a movement afoot to change that, it will be no easy task. “It can be hard to wrap our heads around the notion that a woman’s diet or mental state today will have a serious effect on her children’s health many years out,” says Paul. Committing money and medical focus to try to prevent something so far in the future can seem amorphous compared to allotting resources to medicating the symptoms of a problem that already exists. (This strikes me as a strangely emotional approach to a situation that might benefit from a little logic.)

But Paul suggests that the bigger problem may actually be a political one. Focusing on the health of the fetus is controversial for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s getting into some very murky issues around abortion.

“Caring for the fetus, protecting the fetus from harm – to abortion rights advocates, such measures sound like the steps antiabortion forces have taken to try to establish a fetus’s rights. What’s the difference between controlling a diabetic pregnant woman’s blood sugar and, say, charging a pregnant woman who uses drugs with child abuse? Between telling an obese pregnant woman that her weight may predispose her child to obesity and requiring a woman to look at an ultrasound of her fetus before proceeding with an abortion?”

For Paul, the difference is about intent. Pregnant women should be informed about  prenatal health and how it might affect future health. They should be given good care and support. And then they should be treated as autonomous beings who can make their own decisions, taking this information into account.

“Ultimately, research on the developmental origins of health and disease should lead us to a new perspective on pregnancy, one that’s not about coercing or controlling women – nor about ogling or fetishizing them – but about helping them, and their future children, be as healthy and as happy as they can be.”

Well said, as usual.

Read Annie Murphy Paul’s Washington Post Op-Ed.

photo: Christy Scherrer/flickr

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