My wife is 33 weeks pregnant and has been put on bed rest. She had a very serious case of preeclampsia last pregnancy, so the doctors are being extremely cautious this time. The difference though is that last time she got the disease at week 38, so they delivered her and all was fine. (Delivery is the only “cure” for the disease.) Now, she is showing the beginnings of the disease at week 33, so bed rest is prescribed.
Putting aside for a brief moment the physical health and emotional distress issues, there’s a very interesting feminist issue here. Bed rest is prescribed for a wide variety of pregnancy-related illnesses. For preeclampsia, the idea is that a pregnant woman lying on her side is less likely to have elevated blood pressure readings, thus keeping her and the baby healthier. But, despite the seeming medical logic of this rationale, studies indicate that bedrest for preeclampsia does not actually improve pregnancy outcomes.
So why do doctors put women through the dreadful and draining experience of bed rest? Medical intuition, risk aversion, the intransigence of inertia — all these are certainly factors here. But, behind all of this, is there something else going on? Are doctors subconsciously acting on age-old stereotypes about what women should be doing during pregnancy? Are they putting women on bed rest because, when anything in life presents a difficulty to a pregnancy, the response is to make women stop whatever it is that they are doing in their lives and focus solely on being the babymakers that they biologically should be?
I am certainly not saying that my wife’s doctor has this motivation or that any particular doctor does. But, when research shows that bed rest does not have benefits but the recommendation still persists, background assumptions about women and pregnancy have to be analyzed.
And yet, even though we are both well aware of the complexities of bed rest and the evidence about it for preeclampsia, we’re doing whatever we can to follow the doctor’s recommendations. This is a wanted pregnancy, so we’re not about to put anything at risk, even if we are very suspicious about bed rest, for a variety of reasons. Thankfully, my wife is feeling fine and her numbers since the original blood-pressure spike have been great. She’s been given permission to “cheat” as needed, which keeps her sane. She’s been great about this, and my son and I are doing everything we can to make her comfortable and keep her from complete boredom.
But there’s only so much we can do, especially when we’re fighting not only a very serious disease but also millenia-old stereotypes about women’s role in society.
– David S. Cohen