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Lay off Chrissie Swan for smoking while pregnant

Broadcaster and commentator Chrissie Swan certainly opened her own can of worms yesterday with her admission she has been smoking while pregnant with her third child. Swan’s “confession” came to light…

Why do we feel the need to judge Swan for having a few sneaky cigs while pregnant? AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Broadcaster and commentator Chrissie Swan certainly opened her own can of worms yesterday with her admission she has been smoking while pregnant with her third child.

Swan’s “confession” came to light following an incident earlier in the week when she was “caught” smoking in her car by a photographer - she apparently begged him not to publish the image.

The story is making headlines because medical authorities in Australia have made it very clear that smoking is a big no-no in pregnancy, given the impressive list of health risks to mothers and babies.

Yet when it comes to smoking during pregnancy, fetal health has routinely been presented as the only reason women should quit. Packets of cigarettes carry huge (scary) warning labels that shout (literally) SMOKING HARMS UNBORN BABIES with an image of a suffering baby.

In spite of medical warnings, one in seven women smoke during pregnancy in Australia.

In anticipation of the fallout over the story, Swan shut down her Twitter account (@chrissieswan) – and with good reason. The public reaction to her confession has been one of anger and outrage. Many people have been forthright in criticising her for “selfishly” and knowingly endangering the life of her unborn baby.

But why do folks feel the need to judge Swan for having a few sneaky cigs while pregnant?

Pregnancy is profoundly medicalised in Australia, with pregnant women receiving constant reminders that everything they do or consume has the potential to endanger the life of the fetus.

As I have explained previously on The Conversation, the proliferation of images of fetuses in popular culture has changed the way we think about the relationship between pregnant women and the unborn. This has led to a growing perception that fetuses are “people” with “rights” that need to be protected at all costs.

In line with this, anti-smoking campaigns often use visual emotional appeals to convince pregnant women that fetal life must be protected. For many years, anti-smoking campaigns used ultrasound images and cartoons with talking fetuses in the womb begging mum to “get me out of here”.

We need to recognise the cultural forces that shape women’s decisions to smoke during pregnancy. Flickr/zippaparazza

More recently, such appeals have gone high-tech. The Australian government launched a phone app as part of its Quit for you, Quit for two campaign. Notably, the app gives a woman access to information about “how [her] baby is growing” whenever she has the urge to smoke.

For the most part, these campaigns have been ineffective in helping pregnant women quit smoking. But they have been effective in promoting a specific way of seeing fetuses (as individuals in need of protection) and defining how pregnant women should feel about them (quitting smoking is a sign of maternal love). But these campaigns are jarringly similar to the rhetoric used in anti-abortion ideology.

It is for this reason that Chrissie Swan’s plight presents difficult questions for feminists.

From an ethical viewpoint, it’s hard to deny that pregnant women have certain responsibilities to their fetuses. After all, the scientific research shows us that smoking does indeed cause various health problems.

However, castigating pregnant women like Chrissie Swan also presents deeper social and political risks for feminists who would rather not fuel fetal rights ideology.

The mixing of moral judgements against smoking and public health messages is dangerous because all of a sudden it becomes legitimate to intervene in the maternal-fetal relationship on behalf of the fetus.

I feel sorry for Chrissie Swan. As an educated woman, she surely knows smoking in pregnancy is harmful. As Swan said in her public statement, the stress of the demands associated with her job, of moving house, and constant travel all contributed to her smoking. She weighed the risks - it is not for me or for anyone else to judge her decision.

For Chrissie’s sake, the answer is not harsh moral judgement; pregnant women shouldn’t be shouldering the morality of the nation. The only way forward is to recognise pregnant women’s agency – including the choice to smoke when pregnant – as well as the much larger social and cultural forces that shape women’s decisions to smoke during pregnancy.

We should be more sensitive to how women think about their fetuses and we should be working towards the creation of positive public health campaigns that focus on maternal and fetal health.

Importantly, we also need to be aware of the broadscale social change that is still necessary in order to help women who are trying to juggle the demands of paid work and home life. It’s not enough to say Swan shouldn’t be smoking during pregnancy without addressing the range of factors that got her to that point in the first place.