Something did not sit quite right with me yesterday as I watched the response to Chrissie Swan's revelation (confession?) unfurl on twitter. And it wasn't the ugly responses - they are always so predictable - but another sort.
The response reminded me of what happens whenever breastfeeding v formula style "debates" arise. We rightly want to protect the individual woman who is not breastfeeding - for any number of reasons that are really none of our business - from judgement and shaming; but in doing so it is not uncommon to see calls to silence legitimate and necessary discussion about what public policy responses should look like when it comes to promoting higher rates of breastfeeding. Or for public policy aimed at promoting breastfeeding to be viewed as an attack on individual women's choices. (The response to Michael Bloomberg's efforts to introduce the WHO breastfeeding code of conduct into NYC hospitals makes for an interesting case study.)
Let me be clear, I am not trying to draw a parallel between the well documented harm of smoking while pregnant to a growing fetus and the impact of breastmilk versus formula. The only parallel I wish to draw is the way discussions play themselves out.
So, for some it was not enough to simply say 'for god's sake leave Chrissie alone. This is none of our business'... but to move into 'my mother smoked while pregnant and we survived' mode. And while it is great that individuals were not harmed, it does not mean that we should downplay the absolutely real effects that smoking has on a developing fetus.
To that I would add that any public health campaigns should focus on second hand smoke, given what we now know about it's impact not only on the fetus but also the harmful health effects on babies and children (in other words, smoking dads and partners of pregnant women are very much on the hook).
There is another aspect of the rightfully compassionate response to Chrissie Swan that made me twitch, and which I am still struggling to articulate clearly. It is the feeling that were it a different woman, one who was less 'one of us' and more 'other', I don't feel confident that there would have been the same outpouring of compassion. And to complicate things further, would the compassionate response extend to an 'other' mother whose addiction was to a substance other than alcohol or tobacco?
Our image of who smokes during pregnancy is not a middle class white woman with her own radio show. It is the single mother, the poor mother, the teen mother, the Indigenous mother.
As Chrissie herself said on air: "I knew it was wrong that there is so much terrible judgment that only awful people and bad parents and idiots and bogans smoke during pregnancy - and I didn't feel like I belonged in any of those categories - so I kept it all under wraps and dealt with it how I could."
But those mothers - and according to this report it is disadvantaged mothers, including the young and Indigenous, who are most likely to smoke during pregnancy - who are less 'us' and more 'other' are no less deserving of our compassion, and more importantly support. And just as Chrissie Swan found herself under the sort of pressure that made quitting smoking that much harder, these 'other' mothers are likely to face daily challenges that those of us who live in comfortable middle class bubbles could even begin to comprehend.
The fact that addiction is often framed in the language of criminality for those who are viewed as 'other' (and in the US this includes pregnant women who unbelievably have been incarcerated for drug addiction) should also be noted; and even the way we describe the same drug varies depending on who is using it (as has been pointed out on twitter, consider the use of phrases like 'rivers of grog' to describe Indigenous communities with high rates of alcohol consumption, a description that has never been applied to Sydney's most alcohol affected suburb Mosman).
When it comes to these discussions, I think it is important to think about how our own personal responses - let alone public policy responses - may differ depending on whose body is being policed. And next time we see the media beating up on an individual mother or group of mothers who are less like us, I hope that we leap to their defense as readily as we have for somebody who we think of as one of our own.