Baby-on-board badges

Tokyo hands out pins that identify the expectant.

Published August 8, 2006 10:37AM (EDT)

Tokyo is now handing out pink and blue buttons that read "There is a baby in my belly" to pregnant women in the hope that they will be given seats on the city's commuter trains. Of course, by the late stages of pregnancy, most women don't need a badge. But, as an official at Japan's Health Ministry told reporters: "Especially in the early stages, it is difficult to tell from someone's appearance whether they are pregnant ... these early stages are rather unstable and it is important to take care."

Unsurprisingly, the move comes at a time when Japan is trying to persuade its citizens to have more babies to counteract its shrinking population. "We want to create an environment that is pleasant for pregnant women," said an official at the Health Ministry.

And so it seems the current fetishization of pregnancy (and don't forget pre-pregnancy!) is not limited to the United States.

Don't misunderstand. It is a matter of good sense, respect and kindness to offer your seat to a visibly pregnant woman, or an elderly person, or anyone with a physical impediment that might make it uncomfortable for him or her to stand. I give up my seat for pregnant women and I hope that when I am pregnant, others will offer me a seat. All of my pregnant girlfriends have discussed with pleasure the moment in their gestations when it became clear they were pregnant and people began to offer them seats. I am all for offering seats to pregnant women!

However. There are several troubling things about this. First off is the treatment of women in the early months as invalids who need to be cosseted. After all, if a woman in her first trimester is too weak to stand through a commute, how will she do her job? Should she be exercising? It seems a short step backward to periods of confinement and bed rest.

I understand that there are discomforts of early pregnancy -- from nausea to exhaustion -- that could make it uncomfortable to stand during a commute. But nonpregnant people suffer from all kinds of physical discomforts and don't wear signs that say "I have a migraine" or "I have allergies" or "I ate something bad last night" or "I didn't get any sleep because I was up working" as they make their way to work. Sure pregnancy is a different situation. But is it actually a superior condition that merits special treatment we don't afford others in similarly invisible stages of suffering? If we say it is, then we're saying that never should a woman be treated with more deference and respect than when she is carrying a fetus. And that is downright scary. The implication is that a woman's comfort and good health are of less concern when she is not reproducing, and insignificant if she happens never to reproduce.

And if it's not about the woman at all, but the instability of the fetus in the early months? Yikes. The instability of the early months is part of pregnancy. It's why many people choose not to discuss their pregnancies until they are into the second trimester. And that's whether they ride the train or walk or take a Town Car. To institutionalize a civic concern for the fetus in its earliest stages is to prize the unborn over the adult, the potential life over the life being lived.

Plus, there's no proof of pregnancy required to get the damn badge. So nonpregnant women everywhere will be scamming them and sitting their butts down wherever they please.

By 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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