Archives for posts with tag: Health

Sociological Images addressed two issues that have been pet peeves of mine for a long time, namely the sexualization of breast cancer and the sexualizing of breastfeeding.  The piece compares the admonishment of the author’s sister-in-law for allowing her “breast to fall out” when she fell asleep nursing on a plane and this 2012 ad for breast cancer awareness:

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To create momentum to fund breast cancer research, breast cancer has been both feminized/infantilized through pink marketing, and sold as a way for men to save body parts to which they want to preserve sexual access.  Breast cancer awareness is all about the breasts.  Hence, you see bumper stickers that say

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or

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As if what is being preserved through breast cancer research and treatment are breasts, not human lives.  It is hard to imagine a campaign to raise awareness of testicular cancer that promoted blue teddy bears and selling beer with blue ribbons on it, along with bumper stickers saying “save the wienie beanies” or “save the family jewels” or “save the nuts” (which is what we are if we think such a campaign would ever occur).

While the 2012 ad featured in Sociological Images does include partial faces, many breast cancer awareness ads do not:

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While it is possible for nubile young women to get breast cancer, most women who get breast cancer look more like this:

Portrait of a happy nurse and patient

Bodies and breasts getting cancer treatment, even when headless, look more like this:

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and despite the blonde locks on the tatas model, many women battling breast cancer do not have hair, having lost it to chemo treatments:

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Somehow, these sexy tata images, including apparently naked women (or women’s torsos), are okay to display because they are for the higher purpose of fighting breast cancer, and perhaps more importantly, preserving breasts so men can be titillated by them (yes, titillated, haha).

While it may be possible to find breastfeeding a baby sexy, usually it is fairly dull.  Most women-infant pairs look something like this while breastfeeding:

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though many new mothers don’t look this good on a regular basis.

But the media also tends to portray breastfeeding as an activity of a breast rather than a human:

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even when the intent is not remotely sexual:

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But many photos of breastfeeding women are sexualized.  Beautiful women with no postpartum paunches wear attractive bras or negligees or form-fitting tops and pull the top down (rather than wearing a loose shirt and lifting it up from the bottom):

mother breast feeding her child, focus on the child

  While some women do feed their babies this way, usually it’s not the first-line choice for feeding in the presence of strangers.

Somehow, this image gets translated to the typical breastfeeding women, who is chastised for allowing her breast to show, or sometimes merely because she is breastfeeding, even if no one can see anything at all other than fabric:

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No one excoriates women for having cancer in public.

The problem with breasts is, apparently, that they are attached to women.  Women need to go out in public to work, shop, get sunshine, see other people, and all of the reasons that human beings generally leave the privacy of their homes.  And when they go out, they take their breasts with them.  And when a woman gets cancer, the pain and fear are experienced by a human being, not a breast.

It’s fine to think breasts are sexy.  it’s not so fine to define them as separate from the women who have them.

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I read a comment once about depression as a “minor” side effect of taking oral contraceptives: depression is a minor side effect that merely ruins the entire quality of a woman’s life.  While pretty much everyone feels sad once in a while, depression is not the same as situational sadness.  Here is some basic information on depression from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

Major depression is a mood state that goes well beyond temporarily feeling sad or blue. It is a serious medical illness that affects one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and physical health….Without treatment, the frequency and severity of these symptoms tend to increase over time….[symptoms include] depressed mood (sadness), poor concentration, insomnia, fatigue, appetite disturbances, excessive guilt and thoughts of suicide. Left untreated, depression can lead to serious impairment in daily functioning and even suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

Fortunately depression is treatable, and one main component of treatment is often taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which include commonly prescribed antidepressants such as Zoloft and Prozac.  Treatment for depression not only impacts quality of life, but life itself.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read New York Times writer Roni Caryn Rabin‘s comparison of giving up prescribed antidepressants to giving up smoking.  And imagine how much more surprising it was when she compared giving up antidepressants to giving up brie.  Yes, brie, as in a single type of gourmet cheese.

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I’m sure that anyone who has ever confessed to loving brie more than life was being hyperbolic.

The piece goes on to quote Barbara Mintzes, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health:

If antidepressants made such a big difference, and women on them were eating better, sleeping better and taking better care of themselves, then one would expect to see better birth outcomes among the women who took medication than among similar women who did not.  What’s striking is that there’s no research evidence showing that, [but on the contrary] when you look for it, all you find are harms.

Who is harmed by the continued use of antidepressants, you might ask?  After all, if they were harming the woman, wouldn’t she have stopped taking them on her own?  Wouldn’t it be likely that she would have stopped taking them before she became pregnant?

Well, it turns out that the “harms” of taking antidepressants accrue only to the fetus–maybe.

Among the possible harm that the article lists are autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), lower language competence at age 3, preterm birth, birth defects, a lung disorder, REM sleep disruption, and lower birthweight and Apgar scores.

The problem is, most studies were of low scientific quality.  In some of the studies, when further controls were used, many of the negative outcomes were associated with having a mother with depression, whether or not she took antidepressants.

The article does not distinguish between different SSRIs–although these drugs all impact seratonin, they have different chemical formations.  The only concession to this that the article makes is to note that Paxil in particular is associated with birth defects, but information about Paxil strongly recommends against using it in pregnancy, and the FDA changed Paxil’s labeling and pregnancy category in 2005.

Many women actually do give up antidepressants in pregnancy.  For instance, one study of over 100,000 women in the UK found that “Only 10% of women treated before pregnancy still received antidepressants at the start of the third trimester. In contrast, 35% of nonpregnant women were still treated after a similar time period.”  The study does not indicate whether women who continued using antidepressants had different outcomes.

Rabin’s piece does quote Dr. Roy Perlis, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of a study that found a connection between fetal antidepressant exposure and ADHD. Depite this research, he says,

The downside of these studies is that it ends up scaring women away from treatment…the severity of the depression or anxiety can make it very hard for [women] to take care of a child, and is such that their life is at risk if they’re not treated.

The article then closes with an implication that Dr. Adam Urato, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Tufts Medical Center, thinks women should stop using antidepressants in pregnancy in favor of non-drug options such as counseling, exercise, and bright light therapy.  I am in favor of all of these things as first line treatments, but if they are not sufficient, what should a pregnant woman do?

The response from pregnant women and young mothers who read this piece doesn’t indicate that Rabin’s information was helpful.  Isn’t it bad enough to be depressed without being shamed for seeking treatment?

Alexis, the mother of a 7-week-old, says

Well I guess I’m a horrible person and mother…Now I feel guilty about the drug that I was prescribed following a suicide attempt 2 years ago, a drug that literally saved my life.

Rachel, currently pregnant, writes

OMG, I am totally freaking out! I have been taking Prozac for symptoms of anxiety for the last few years. When I became pregnant, my ob/gyn, my current therapist, a past therapist whom I consulted, and my prescribing doctor all assured me, in no uncertain terms, that it would be better for my baby if I stuck to this regimen than if I were to discontinue it. Now I am about to start my second trimester, and I read here, also in no uncertain terms, that all my doctors were wrong! Now what am I supposed to do?! Help!!!

On a brighter note, unlike many articles that generate sympathy primarily for the fetus at the expense of the woman, many commenters here point out the deficits in Rabin’s presentation and her argument.  A number of them  are physicians or nurses, and many are also outraged at the comparison of antidepressant use to smoking and eating cheese.

Here’s Nicole:

As an obstetrician I am mortified that this article starts off by comparing quitting smoking and not drinking alcohol to weaning off SSRIs, and it blames the mother for staying on them while barely mentioning that it can’t happen without providers like me who do the prescribing.

And Alabama Doc:

First, medication for a serious brain disorder is nothing whatsoever analogous to buying cheese…There is muddling of several separate issues here, with the assumption that the women and their doctors are using an ineffective medication just for… what, a lifestyle preference? Yes, we have evidence that non-medication treatment can be highly effective for mild to moderate depression and that there may be no clear benefit of SSRIs for mild depression. For severe depression, however, medication appears to have significant benefit. Notice how all the discussion of risks/ benefits centered around the infant and really nothing was said about the mother? Is the mother’s life so unimportant?

and Caroline Cylkowski, Nurse Practitioner:

Shame on NYtimes for publishing an article completely based on pseudoscience. The author cites the opinions of one MFM doctor and one public health researcher as the basis for her argument. What is scary is that pregnant mothers, who already worry that everything they do might harm their future child, will read this this and discontinue their antidepressants. Antidepressants are not optional medications. The disease they treat has debilitating and sometimes life-threatening consequences.

In contrast to Rabin’s piece, sources from medical institutions take a very different tone.  For instance, Massachusetts General Hospital points out

Many women may consider stopping medication abruptly after learning they are pregnant, but for many women this may carry substantial risks.  Decisions regarding the initiation or maintenance of treatment during pregnancy must reflect an understanding of the risks associated with fetal exposure to a particular medication but must also take into consideration the risks associated with untreated psychiatric illness in the mother. Psychiatric illness in the mother is not a benign event and may cause significant morbidity for both the mother and her child; thus, discontinuing or withholding medication during pregnancy is not always the safest option.

The MGH site goes on to point out that each medication is different and some carry more risks than others.  They identify several antidepressants that appear to have no association with birth defects and point out that symptoms of neonatal withdrawal from antidepressants are generally mild and disappear within a few days.

What is perhaps most disheartening about Rabin’s piece is the addition of women’s legitimate medical treatment to the Pregnancy Outcome Blame Game.  Major causes of birth defects include environmental contamination and domestic abuse.  Major causes of preterm birth are racism and lack of prenatal care.  But these require broader social intervention to mitigate.  How much easier to blame individual women for poor birth outcomes, especially when they are too depressed to defend themselves.

Let’s say you are CPR certified and the woman next to you on the morning commuter train goes into cardiac arrest.  Is your first thought, I had better let this woman die because if I perform CPR, I might hurt her fetus?  Apparently this is the attitude of many health care providers.
The Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology (SOAP) has issued a new consensus statement regarding cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for pregnant women.  Pregnant women may have special needs regarding CPR, especially later in pregnancy when the size of the fetus compresses veins sending blood back to the heart.
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Sometimes a hysterotomy (basically a cesarean, but the idea is to get the fetus out of the woman’s body) is the best way to preserve the woman’s life.  Some might be concerned about hysterotomy because of the concern for the life of the fetus being born prematurely.  We might then ask, what happens to a fetus inside of a woman who has gone into cardiac arrest and dies?  Well, the fetus generally dies too.
One of the things the new guidelines state is the importance of administering care that prioritizes saving the pregnant woman’s life.  Generally when a person goes into cardiac arrest, saving that person’s life is the goal, and it is alarming that it has to be stated that the life of a pregnant woman is equally valuable to the life of any other person who goes into cardiac arrest.
In a Q & A with Brendan Carvalho, Chief of Obstetric Anesthesia at Stanford University Medical Center, Dr. Carvalho notes that pregnancy CPR guidelines are important because pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk for cardiac arrest (and all women, pregnant or not, are at some level of risk).  It is laudable to recognize the normalcy of pregnancy in a woman’s life and determine how to provide appropriate medical treatment.  While Carvalho notes that U.S. maternal mortality has decreased dramatically over the last century, he does not mention that it has increased dramatically over the last two decades, with a rate that is now among the worst in the developed world.  The U.S. rates 60th nationally–59 countries have lower maternal death rates.
Perhaps part of rising maternal mortality stems from an attitude toward pregnant women that their humanity is suspended while they perform as vessels for fetal growth.  Such an attitude has been evidenced in the case of  Marlise Munoz (see here), the Texas woman whose dead body was kept artificially functioning against her wishes and those of her family so that it could serve as an incubator for her fetus. Louisiana has created an official law (which is expected to be signed by the governor) that mandates women’s dead bodies be artificially sustained as incubators for any fetus inside them that has reached 20 weeks.   Pregnant women are routinely criminalized for behavior that is not prosecuted in other adults, such as alcohol consumption or refusing to follow the recommendations of a physician (see here), indicating that pregnant women cannot be accorded basic human rights–the kind of rights accorded to all other adult humans.
Carvalho says,
Caregivers are often reluctant to administer medication to pregnant women because of potential harm to the baby. The consensus statement emphasized that caregivers can use the same drugs they typically give to a nonpregnant patient who has a cardiac arrest. The best thing you can do for baby is to provide the mom the best possible care and not withhold any drugs or procedures that would normally be used managing a critically ill person.
The key word here is person.  What justification would there ever be to intentionally withhold treatment from a critically ill person whose life could be preserved?  If pregnant women were truly viewed as people, no one–not Carvalho, not anyone–would ever have to make this statement.

Rinat Dray was forced to have a cesarean in 2011 at Staten Island University Hospital.  Dray had two previous cesareans and chose a doctor who said he supported her desire for a VBAC and a hospital with (by American standards) a low cesarean rate and a good VBAC rate.  But once she arrived at the hospital in labor, according to Dray (as reported by the New York Times),

The doctor told her the baby would be in peril and her uterus would rupture if she did not [have a cesarean]; he told her that she would be committing the equivalent of child abuse and that her baby would be taken away from her.

She still refused the cesarean, and she was supported in her refusal by her husband and her mother.  The hospital strapped her down and wheeled her into surgery as she begged them to stop.  A note in her medical record by Dr. James Ducey says, “I have decided to override her refusal to have a C-section.”  During the surgery, the doctor punctured her bladder.  You can hear a podcast on RH Reality Check in which Dray discusses her case along with professionals in obstetrics, law, and ethics.

Dray is a Hasidic Jew, which likely means that she wants a large family.  While there are risks to vaginal birth after cesarean, in most cases there are even greater risks to having many cesareans.

In the podcast, Dr. Katharine Morrison, MD, FACOG (Director of Buffalo WomenServices, which I wrote about here) says that she reviewed the record and it did not appear that there was an emergency situation or that a cesarean was needed at all.  But even if a cesarean has appeared necessary to preserve the life or health of Dray or her baby, as Dr. Howard Minkoff, chairman of obstetrics at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, said in the NYT article, “I don’t have a right to put a knife in your belly ever.”

One would think that a case in which a psychologically stable woman refused surgery and was then strapped down, sliced open, and had her bladder perforated would be apparent to anyone as a horrendous breach of human rights.  (And actually, she was asking them to wait a little longer, not saying she would not agree if she felt a cesarean was truly necessary).

All one has to do to see where a woman falls in the human rights spectrum of many is to read the comments on the New York Times piece.

The comments fall into a number of categories, including some that unequivocally support Dray.

Many, however, unequivocally support the the doctors or the profession of obstetrics.  Here is Northstar5:

If this woman had 2 prior C-sections then the doctors are absolutely right that vaginal delivery was exceedingly risky. I almost laughed when I read that the woman is charging the doctors and hospital for “improperly substituting their judgment for that of the mother.” What?? That’s what they are supposed to do. They are doctors, she is not.

Some defend the doctors doing whatever they like to avoid risks of malpractice:

Attempting a vaginal birth after two c-sections is extremely dangerous and reckless. The physicians involved would likely have been sued regardless of the method of delivery, so I applaud them for at least saving a life in this case.

I’m not sure where the commenters get their medical information, but the doctor agreed in advance to attend Dray at a vaginal birth.  You can read the entire American College of Obstetricans and Gynecologists’ practice statement “Vaginal Birth After Previous Cesarean Delivery,” which specifically says, “women with two previous low transverse cesarean deliveries may be candidates for TOLAC [trial of labor after cesarean].”  I highly recommend that you visit Jennifer Kamel’s website VBACFacts.com and read “13 Myths about VBAC.”  Repeat cesarean and VBAC both have risks.  The newest ACOG obstetric care consensus statement on cesarean points out the risks of cesarean over vaginal birth.  Cesarean nearly quadruples the risk of maternal death, and risks of maternal morbidity and mortality go up with every cesarean.  This would be a particular concern for a woman who wanted a very large family, as many Hasidic women do.  Here is a consent form that clearly lays out the risks and benefits of repeat cesarean and VBAC.

Some commenters are completely on the side of the fetus–if the mother’s status is reduced to that of a container, so be it.  Here’s NYC Commuter:

In this case, the hospital and doctors have not one patient, but two. One is an adult who appears competent to make medical decisions. The other is a fetus, at term, who has no voice. The courts have repeatedly affirmed that the state has a duty to protect citizens that cannot protect themselves. If a fetus is believed to be “alive,” then an argument can be made that it must be protected as well. Pregnant women have been forced to receive imprisoned to prevent them from harming their fetuses (e.g. drug abusers), take medication (e.g. for treatable diseases), and even receive c-sections if the baby’s life is judged to be in direct jeopardy.

I have written about the ethics of privileging the well-being of a fetus over an adult woman many times, including here, here, and here.  ACOG also agrees that a woman should have the right to make her own decisions, even if it may negatively impact the fetus.  One recommendation from ACOG’s Committee Opinion, “Maternal Decision Making, Ethics, and the Law” says,

Pregnant women’s autonomous decisions should be respected. Concerns about the impact of maternal decisions on fetal well-being should be discussed in the context of medical evidence and understood within the context of each woman’s broad social network, cultural beliefs, and values. In the absence of extraordinary circumstances, circumstances that, in fact, the Committee on Ethics cannot currently imagine, judicial authority should not be used to implement treatment regimens aimed at protecting the fetus, for such actions violate the pregnant woman’s autonomy.

In addition to wanting to protect the rights of physicians and fetuses over those of pregnant women, many commenters simply condemn Dray as selfish, selfish, selfish.  Here’s Beth Green:

What an incredibly selfish woman putting her unborn child in harms way. She got her several hours of trial-labor and no baby, so according to the standard of care she got a C-section and a healthy baby.

Some also posit that Dray is not only selfish but also psychologically compromised.  Here’s Dave:

This case is not about the “debate over C-sections.” This case is mostly about psychopathology, but there is a larger point. Rinat Dray’s actions harm us all. In her narcissism, she was willing to sacrifice her child to maintain her sense of control. This bears repeating – we are dealing with someone who would rather her child suffer than allow a section. So I’m sure she cannot put herself in the place of others, and she will not understand this, but she makes it all the more difficult to deliver babies in the US. Once all the OB/GYNs suffer these indignities and these lawsuits from those with personality disorders, who will deliver babies safely?

And here’s Reader:

A mother in labor who focuses more on her joy of delivery rather than trying to ensure that she delivers a healthy child who could be stuck with birth defects for up to an average of 7-8 decades thereafter is not rational, is selfish and needs to have her head examined.

What we get above all else if the “all that matters is a healthy baby” trope.  Here is NMY:

I have absolutely no sympathy for this woman at all. Her sense of entitlement is simply galling. She’s having a baby. The most important thing here is to ensure the delivery of a healthy baby, not to satisfy some preconceived notion that she should have a vaginal delivery.

Here’s Jen:

The OBGYNs can’t win. Now they are going to get sued for performing c-sections. It used to be they got sued for not doing the section soon enough. This lawsuit is absolutely ridiculous and I hope the physicians win. Do you want a c-section and a healthy baby or a VBAC and a dead baby? How can any mother refuse a c-section when the physician is telling you the health of your baby is at risk?

Here’s Stephen:

Sorry, but the health of the fetus should trump the intellectual desires of the mother….There are too many C-sections performed to be sure, but isn’t the point of labor and birth to deliver a healthy baby?

Here’s Lynn in DC:

She had this child in 2011 and all of her children are healthy so what’s the big harm here?

Aside from the fallacy of believing that Ms. Dray could not have both a respectful vaginal birth AND a healthy baby, a healthy baby is not all that matters.  A healthy mother matters too.  As in Ms. Dray’s case, having a perforated bladder and the trauma of being strapped down for a surgery that she actively refused did not result in a healthy mother.  Not being dead is not good enough.

 

 

 

Image The cesarean rate is Brazil has been high for a long time, and it is getting higher.  In private hospitals, almost all women deliver by cesarean; in public hospitals it’s about half.  According to Ricki Lake, who went to Brazil in the process of filming The Business of Being Born, “There was actually a joke circulating that the only way to have a natural birth in Rio was if your doctor got stuck in traffic.”  Brazil’s childbirth practices have come to attention recently because of Adelir Carmen Lemos de Góes, who on April 1, 2014, was taken by police to have a forced cesarean under court order.  Here’s an account of what happened from The Guardian:

…Brazilian mother Adelir Carmen Lemos de Góes was preparing for her third birth. Despite living in a country with one of the highest caesarean rates in the world (82% for those with private insurance and 50% for those without), she was looking forward to giving birth vaginally after previously having caesareans she felt were unnecessary.  However, in the midst of her labour, six armed police banged on her front door. Despite there being no question of reduced mental capacity, doctors had obtained a court order allowing them to perform a caesarean…Adelir was taken from her home, forcibly anaesthetised and operated on without consent.

Attorney Jill Filopovic writes,

A Brazilian court granted a prosecutor’s request for the appointment of a special guardian. And just in case it was unclear whose life gets prioritized when a woman has a c-section against her will, the judge specified that when there is a ‘conflict of interests of the mother with the child’s life … the interests of the child predominate over hers.’

Filopovic quotes Dr. Simone Diniz, associate professor in the department of maternal and child health at the University of São Paulo: 

In our culture, childbirth is something that is primitive, ugly, nasty, inconvenient….It’s part of Catholic culture that this experience of childbirth should come with humiliation.

The Atlantic subsequently ran a longer piece by Olga Khazan, “Why Most Brazilian Women Get C-Sections,” which, also points to a confluence of attitudes, practices, policies, and norms that lead to a trend toward universal cesarean.  Humiliation isn’t hard to come by in Brazilian obstetrics.  Khazan reports,

Many physicians’ attitudes toward childbirth weave together Brazil’s macho culture with traditional sexual mores….When women are in labor, some doctors say, ‘When you were doing it, you didn’t complain, but now that you’re here, you cry.’

Mariana Bahia, who participated in protests against forced cesarean, noted:

There’s no horizontality between patients and doctors.  Doctors are always above us.

And Paula Viana, head of a women’s rights organization, said,

We have a really serious problem in Brazil that the doctors over-cite evidence [of fetal distress].  They think they can interfere as they would like.

But much of what these various articles says about childbirth in Brazil is eerily similar to what happens in the United States.  Khazan quotes Maria do Carmo Leal, a researcher at the National Public Health School at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation about birth practices in Brazil:

Here, when a woman is going to give birth, even natural birth, the first thing many hospitals do is tie her to the bed by putting an IV in her arm, so she can’t walk, can’t take a bath, can’t hug her husband. The use of drugs to accelerate contractions is very common, as are episiotomies.  What you get is a lot of pain, and a horror of childbirth. This makes a cesarean a dream for many women.

In the United States, Pitocin induction and augmentation are ubiquitous , and episiotomies, though less common than in Brazil, are still greatly overused.  Almost all U.S. hospitals use IV hydration as a matter of policy (rather than allowing women to eat and drink as they please, which is the evidence based recommendation).  And in the U.S., taking a bath in labor may be impossible, as many hospitals do not provide bathtubs out of a misguided fear of women attempting waterbirths. The website My OB Said What documents a seemingly endless stream of U.S. health professionals’ humiliating comments, such as referring to a pregnant women as a “little girls,” criticizing their weight, or belittling their pain.

Court ordered cesareans occur in the United States as well, as Erin Davenport documents in “Court Ordered Cesarean Sections: Why Courts Should Not Be Allowed to Use a Balancing Test.”  Davenport notes that forced cesareans are generally ordered because of concerns for fetal welfare–as in Brazil, U.S. courts often privilege the rights of the fetus over those of the pregnant woman.

Alissa Scheller created infographics on Huffington Post showing how states’ policies are used to persecute and prosecute pregnant in the name of fetal welfare.

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National Advocates for Pregnant Women, whose research supplied much of the information for the above graphic, documents the legal control of pregnant women that occurs in the name of fetal rights, such as prosecuting a woman for murder after a suicide attempt while pregnant (in this case, the baby–born by cesarean–was alive, but died a few days later).

While the cesarean rate in the United States is much lower than in Brazil, a third of U.S. births are by cesarean, more than double the “threshold not to be exceeded” identified by the World Health Organization.  Khazan notes the parallels between Brazil’s medical system and the the system in the U.S.–both incentivize cesareans:

With the higher price of the private system [in Brazil] comes better amenities and shorter wait times, but also all of the trappings of fee-for-service medical care. C-sections can be easily scheduled and quickly executed, so doctors schedule and bill as many as eight procedures a day rather than wait around for one or two natural births to wrap up.

As in Brazil, though some cesareans performed in the U.S. are certainly in the interest of maternal and/or fetal well-being, many are in the interest of the obstetrician’s well-being.  There is still a convenience factor; in addition, OB-GYN Dr. Peter Doelger said doctors and hospitals are protecting themselves by following protocols based a fear of litigation:

So you’re stuck with this situation where we’re doing things, not based on science.  [The increase in C-sections is] really based on protecting the institution and ourselves. And, you can’t blame them. Getting sued is a horrible thing for the physician, a horrible thing for the nurse, and a horrible thing for the institution.

And the woman?  Well as long as the baby is healthy, does she matter?

Wisconsin has the dubious distinction of being one of three states (along with Minnesota and South Dakota) that allow civil commitment of pregnant women for mental health and substance abuse treatment (you can find your state’s policies here).  In an ironic twist, it is very hard for pregnant women to voluntarily enroll in appropriate substance abuse treatment–many programs will not accept pregnant women, and specialized programs are few and far between (and often have no room).  Only four states prohibit discrimination against pregnant women seeking treatment in publicly funded programs–none of them are states that allow civil commitment.  So when the state of Wisconsin forced 28 year old Alicia Beltran into substance abuse treatment under the “cocaine mom act”–even though she was not abusing any substances at the time–she was held for 78 days in a treatment center, received no medical care, and was forced to take a drug that helps people withdraw from their drug of abuse–even though she had already finished withdrawing from Percocet before entering treatment (verified by drug tests).  She was also not allowed to have a lawyer to represent her at her commitment hearing (she requested one), but the court appointed representation for her fetus.

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People in Wisconsin also took notice of the case of Marlise Munoz in Texas. Munoz’s body was kept artificially alive after she was declared brain dead (which is the clinical definition of dead) so that she could incubate her fetus against her previously stated wishes and the wishes of her family.  A judge finally ruled that a law stating that life support could not be withdrawn from a pregnant woman, regardless of her wishes, did not apply in Munoz’s case because Munoz was already dead.    Image

Understandably, some in Wisconsin are concerned that pregnant people are not being accorded the same human rights as other people.  As a result, three new bills are being introduced, the “Pregnancy Protection Package,” sponsored by Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison and Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison (as reported here):

  • Assembly Bill 860 ensures pregnant women who have allegedly used drugs have the right to an attorney before being detained.
  • Assembly Bill 861 requires a pregnant woman’s advanced medical directives to be respected, just like any other patient’s.
  • Assembly Joint Resolution 111, affirms that “pregnant women be afforded all the rights of non-pregnant people.”

Here is a part of ACOG’s Committee Opinion on substance abuse and pregnancy:

Seeking obstetric–gynecologic care should not expose a woman to criminal or civil penalties, such as incarceration, involuntary commitment, loss of custody of her children, or loss of housing. These approaches treat addiction as a moral failing. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing biological and behavioral disorder with genetic components. The disease of substance addiction is subject to medical and behavioral management in the same fashion as hypertension and diabetes. Substance abuse reporting during pregnancy may dissuade women from seeking prenatal care and may unjustly single out the most vulnerable, particularly women with low incomes and women of color. Although the type of drug may differ, individuals from all races and socioeconomic strata have similar rates of substance abuse and addiction.

Many people would love to have mental health or substance abuse treatment, but cannot get it.  In other cases, people who are a genuine danger to themselves or others cannot be committed to treatment involuntarily.  Pete Early’s book Crazy details his agonizing quest to get treatment for his young adult son, who was delusional and ultimately broke into someone’s home and was criminally prosecuted.  Early points out that not allowing family members or qualified medical professionals to mandate treatment for the severely mentally ill means that we populate our jails with people who are in desperate need of treatment.  They do not get better in jail, where one psychiatrist is generally responsible for hundreds of severely mentally ill prisoners.

The concern for receipt of mental health treatment for pregnant women generally has nothing to do with the health or well being of the woman.  In the case of Bei Bei Shuai, pregnant and depressed, Shuai’s suicide attempt led not to mental health treatment, but to 435 days in jail and a trial for murder (the baby was born alive by cesarean but died two days later).  It is also notable that fetal protection laws directed against pregnant women are unlikely to help the fetus either — as Beltran noted, she spend her entire 78 days in “treatment” with no prenatal care.  Inadequate prenatal care is a known risk factor for poor pregnancy outcomes for the baby as well as the woman.

Rather than criminalizing pregnant women for legal behavior or criminalizing health conditions only for pregnant women, perhaps we should make sure that all people have access to needed health care, including care for mental health and substance abuse.  And perhaps we should make sure pregnant women have at least as much right to consent and refusal for treatment as people who are actively hallucinating.  And perhaps we should recognize that if we are going to allow for anyone to have advance directives, it is not acceptable to say that pregnant women have no say over their own bodies if the state wants to use those bodies as incubators.

What does it say about our attitude toward the humanity of women that we have to generate laws that say that ordinary human rights extend to them whether they are pregnant or not?

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Controversies around breastfeeding surged once again last month with Social Science and Medicine‘s pre-release of Cynthia Colen and David Ramey’s article, “Is Breast Truly Best?  Estimating the Effects of Breastfeeding on Long-term Child Health and Wellbeing in the United States Using Sibling Comparisons.”*  That’s not a very snappy title, so the news sources that picked it up went with the pithier “Breastfeeding Benefits Overstated” (CNN Health) and “Is Breastfeeding Really Better” (New York Times) or with other much shorter versions of the article title.  The article looks at sibling pairs in which one child was breastfed and the other was not.  Statistical comparisons of the children at ages 4-14 on a host of factors showed that the breastfed sibling did not appear to have health, learning, or attachment advantages over the sibling who was never breastfed.

One of the problems with making any assessment of breastfeeding is that it has become a battlefield for Mommy Wars.  One side claims that breastfeeding will guarantee a gifted child who is never ill, and who will always remember to call his mother after graduating from an Ivy League school–plus it will give you an alternative to gas for your car!

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The other side retorts that most adults were formula fed and came out just fine, so there can’t possibly be any benefit to breastfeeding, plus it ties women down, shuts fathers out of parenting, and is kind of icky anyway.

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The more each side trumpets its point of view, the more entrenched each side becomes. Thus, while many news outlets represented the study’s findings as absolute truth, reporting “breastfeeding [is] no better than bottle feeding,”  Melissa Bartick, MD, who spearheaded the Ban the Bags campaign, referred to the Colen and Ramey study as “sensationalism.”

No one is helped when the main breastfeeding support organization in the U.S. states that a tenet of their philosophy is that “Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby,” implying that mothers who don’t breastfeed can never be as attached to their babies and can never satisfy a baby’s needs the way breastfeeding mothers do.  And no one is helped when the United States is among the only countries in the world that has not implemented a single aspect of the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes because no one wants to stand up to the lobbying of a multi-billion dollar formula industry.  (Just so you know, there’s not much of an industry around breast milk production).

Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and health arms of the U.S. government promote the benefits of breastfeeding without much consideration of what benefits there might be in not breastfeeding.  The one-note message of these health groups tends to over-inflate breastfeeding’s benefits and to imply that mothers who breastfeed love their children more or are better mothers than those who do not.

The promotion of breastfeeding to individual mothers without equal or greater promotion of breastfeeding in the culture and structure of society is a recipe for guilt.  Colen and Ramey say,

The line between providing information about the health benefits of breastfeeding and stigmatizing mothers facing structured, valid, and often difficult trade-offs in the care and financial support of their children or in fulfilling their own human potential must be drawn sensitively.

This is a very important point.  In the United Arab Emirates, the belief in breastfeeding’s benefits is mirroring some of the U.S. body politic around pregnant women: legislation was introduced that would compel women to breastfeed.  To force one person to use her body for the benefit of another against her will is a human rights violation.  To pit mothers against their children in the name of “child rights” is unconscionable.  (Seriously, click on the link–it’s mind boggling).

This is the climate in which Colen and Ramey conducted their research.  It is perhaps not surprising that as sociologists, who generally abhor structural inequalities, they conclude that structural changes should take precedence over individual-level breastfeeding promotion:

[A] multifaceted approach will allow women who want to breastfeed to do so for as long as possible without promoting a cult of ‘total motherhood’ in which women’s identities are solely constructed in terms of providing the best possible opportunities for their children and the risks  associated with a failure to breastfeed are vastly overstated.

While I agree with the sentiment of their conclusion, I do think we need to further examine the research process that led to a finding that breastfeeding has no benefit that extends through middle childhood.

Here is a summary of their methods:

  • They used the data set from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79)
  • To determine if a child had been breastfed, they used two questions, both reported by the woman. One asked if the mother had ever breastfed the child (status); the other asked her to estimate how old the child was in weeks when she stopped breastfeeding (duration).
  • The full sample included 8,237 children.  The “discordant” sample (siblings groups with one child who had been breastfed and one who had not) included 1,773 children.
  • They measured the following outcomes: body mass index, obesity, asthma, hyperactivity, parental attachment, behavioral compliance, and 5 tests of intelligence or academic achievement.
  • Outcomes were only investigated for the children from age 4-14.

Let me say emphatically that all studies have flaws and that no one study can address all research concerns.  This is why we have a body of scientific literature, and no one study should absolutely convince us of anything, especially if it is not a large, well-constructed randomized control trial.  Colen and Ramey have made an important contribution to the literature, but it is also important that they and their promotors do not overstate their case.

Current health recommendations are that all children breastfeed exclusively for 6 months.  In the U.S., it is generally advised that children continue to breastfeed in addition to eating food for at least a year.  The World Health Organization recommends at least two years.

The Colen and Ramey study

  • had no measure of exclusive breastfeeding at all;
  • had no measure of “intensity”–those who reported breastfeeding could have been breastfeeding only once a day while their child consumed primarily formula;
  • found no significance for breastfeeding duration in weeks, but did not discuss longer periods of time that would mirror recommendations (for instance, children who breast fed for 6 months and for a year);
  • did not discuss the sample sizes for each week of duration (I am guessing that the sample size for each week decreased dramatically as the weeks wore on; it is difficult to find statistically significant differences when the sample size is small);
  • did not appear to control for a number of factors that could have been important, such as the financial status of the family at each child’s birth or the child’s place in the birth order.

Colen and Ramey also are not able to examine other crucial health measures, such as the impact on the woman herself (breastfeeding is thought to have heath benefits such as reducing the incidence of diabetes and some cancers) or the impact on the children past age 14 (breastfeeding is thought to have a protective effect against some diseases that emerge in adulthood, such as Crohn’s disease).

Perhaps most importantly, they did not look at what happened to children who never consumed any formula at all, but who were fed according to standard health guidelines for infant feeding.

Ultimately, Colen and Ramey measured what the breastfeeding literature typically calls “any breastfeeding,” meaning the child was fed any breastmilk at all even once.  It is of concern that they conclude (and the reporters report) that the benefits of breastfeeding do not extend into middle childhood, rather than that the benefits of any breastfeeding do not extend into middle childhood.  Though Colen and Ramey concede that there are benefits to breastfeeding for infants, I am not certain that there are any measurable benefits to having been fed a few drops of breastmilk on one occasion.

I agree with the conclusions of an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) review,

A history of breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of many diseases in infants and mothers from developed countries. Because almost all the data…were gathered from observational studies, one should not infer causality based on…findings. Also, there is a wide range of quality of the body of evidence across different health outcomes.  For future studies, clear subject selection criteria and definition of “exclusive breastfeeding,” reliable collection of feeding data, controlling for important confounders including child-specific factors, and blinded assessment of the outcome measures will help. Sibling analysis provides a method to control for hereditary and household factors that are important in certain outcomes. In addition, cluster randomized controlled studies on the effectiveness of various breastfeeding promotion interventions will provide further opportunity to investigate any disparity in health outcomes as a result of the intervention.

Colen and Ramey meet only the sibling analysis recommendation.  Ultimately, their article may have done nothing more than to fan the flames of the breastfeeding battles, sending each side further into their own trenches while doing nothing to promote structural changes that might support women’s desire to breastfeed.

*You need a subscription or access to an academic library to get a copy of the full article.

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