Holy “Handmaid’s Tale,” Batman!

The United States is a baby factory; we just live here.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Want to get really freaked out? Check out the first paragraph of today’s Washington Post story “Forever Pregnant,” which explains that new federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ask “all females capable of conceiving a baby to treat themselves — and to be treated by the health care system — as pre-pregnant, regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant anytime soon.”

Pause. Breathe. OK. What?

Apparently, all women “between first menstrual period and menopause” are now supposed to take supplements of folic acid, refrain from smoking, maintain a healthy weight and watch chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes. Other recommendations, mentioned lower down in the Post piece, are that women stay away from cat feces and “discuss the danger alcohol poses to a developing fetus.”

Why stop there? What about avoiding sushi, uncooked meats and unpasteurized cheeses? Perhaps women should only be allowed on planes once it has been determined, by routine pelvic exams administered at the gate, that they are not carrying a fetus that could experience trauma midflight.

What’s this all about? According to the Post, “experts say it’s important that women follow this advice throughout their reproductive lives, because about half of pregnancies are unplanned and so much damage can be done to a fetus between conception and the time the pregnancy is confirmed.” So even when we’re not pregnant, or have no intention of becoming pregnant, or have already been pregnant and are done having babies, we should make our theoretically possible but wholly imaginary fetuses our priorities.

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These new guidelines are meant to address the fact that the rate of infant mortality in the U.S. is three times higher than that in Japan and 2.5 times higher than that in Norway, Finland and Iceland. In fact, it’s higher than that of most other industrialized nations, and rose for the first time in 40 years in 2002, to seven deaths per 1,000 live births. Moreover, it’s worse for poor and minority women. The infant mortality rate among black women is 13.5 per 1,000 live births, as compared with 5.7 for white women.

But that’s because we have a sick and failing healthcare system that leaves millions of disadvantaged Americans without anything resembling the care they require. Almost 17 million women lack health insurance.

Pretending that we’re going to solve this problem by instituting guidelines that treat women as baby incubators is not the solution. All it does is reinforce an attitude that problems women have with reproduction are the only ones worth worrying about. How about federal recommendations about using birth control to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases? How about federal guidelines that require doctors to talk to women about the dangers smoking, poor nutrition, unprotected sex, drug use, lack of exercise, and heavy drinking can pose for them, and not just their precious potential cargo?

Dressing up this “pre-conception care” crap — which is supposed to be administered by every doctor a woman sees, from her G.P. to her gynecologist, perhaps even her podiatrist — as “a reproductive health plan” to help women shut out of the healthcare system doesn’t track.

Even the report itself notes that women who already cannot afford to see a doctor — the ones whose pregnancies are compromised by poor or nonexistent prenatal care — aren’t likely to be able to get their “pre-pregnancy care” either, since obstacles to this “include getting insurance companies to pay for visits.”

No, mostly this sounds like an Orwellian language trick played by the healthcare authorities, letting you know why your health as a woman really matters.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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