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The media showtrial of Smokin’ Stacey

The hounding of Stacey Solomon for having a fag confirms that pregnant women now have little autonomy.

Sally Millard

Topics Politics

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It seems that smoking a few cigarettes a day while pregnant now marks the difference between being Celebrity Mum of the Year and a bad mother. This was what Stacey Solomon found to her cost when she was snapped by the paparazzi taking a cigarette break during a day at work.

The result of Solomon’s indiscretion was that Foxy Bingo – the online gambling service – felt compelled to remove from her the previously little-known accolade of Celebrity Mum of the Year 2011. Solomon has been subject to a good deal of vitriol, including accusations in various phone-ins that her actions amount to child abuse.

Solomon – a runner-up in TV singing contest The X Factor in 2009 who has since become a reality TV hit thanks to her giggling Essex-girl personality – is a nice young woman who doesn’t in any way fit the image of a bad mother. As the discussion developed, some commentators obviously felt that the reaction to her smoking had gone a bit too far. The dominant response shifted to a combination of condemnation for her actions, mixed with sympathy for her inability to control her addiction. This was expressed by Deborah Arnott, chief executive of anti-smoking campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who said: ‘If Stacey is smoking at seven months, she’s got a serious problem. She is to be pitied as she’s obviously heavily addicted. She needs help not condemnation.’ Such a sympathetic approach suits Arnott’s wider argument that evil tobacco companies must be regulated to death because they are peddling products we are too weak to resist.

This was also the line taken by presenters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby on ITV’s This Morning, who were particularly concerned about the amount of stress that had been heaped upon Solomon (not good for the baby) and reassured her during an interview that she really was a ‘great mum’.

Unsurprisingly, given the hard time she has had, Solomon’s reaction has been one of contrition, guilt and shame. Firstly, she has accepted that her behaviour was bad because it implied that she did not put her children first. As she said on This Morning: ‘I understand why people would be angry… I understand that it is a selfish thing.’ Secondly, she has admitted to being a victim of her addiction. She has tried to quit, she says, because ‘the first thing you think when you get pregnant is you’ve got to stop’, but ‘it’s not as easy as just “not doing it”‘. And finally, she has accepted that she needs help. Even sitting on the sofa in the This Morning studio being interviewed by Schofield and Willoughby came across as a therapeutic act, helping her to see the error of her ways and to find a way to change. In this vein, she accepted Schofield’s offer of a visit to the studio doctor, and she also agreed with his suggestion that discussing her problem in the interview itself had made her feel better.

Whether Solomon’s campaign of public contrition will be enough to allow her to keep her record contract and retrieve her ‘good mum’ celebrity status remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: whether she is being derided with scorn or smothered with sympathy, Solomon herself, and the choices she might want to make on her own account as an adult woman, are not the subject of this discussion at all. No one has defended her right to partake in what is, after all, a perfectly legal activity.

In this discussion, Solomon the individual has become all but invisible. Like all pregnant women today, she has been deprived of her status as an autonomous human being capable of making choices on her own account, and has instead become a walking womb, an incubator for her unborn child. As such, she has become an item of public property whose behaviour can be scrutinised, condemned and modified in the name of protecting her fetus. Even those commentators who appeared more sympathetic to her plight were expressing their concern not for Solomon, but for the potential impact on her unborn child of the stress caused to her by the media witch-hunt.

The message is one that all women who have been pregnant will be familiar with. Being pregnant today means losing any claims to individual autonomy or privacy. The first trip to the doctor’s surgery to confirm pregnancy brings not just the joy of the thought of having a new baby, but also thoughts of risk and trepidation, as the potential mother is bombarded from all directions with information, advice and prescriptions about how to behave to ensure the best outcomes for the baby. This starts with lectures on the dangers of smoking and continues with lists of foods to eat and foods to avoid, the risk of drinking alcohol, the correct level of exercise to take, and even the music that should be played to the unborn child in the womb.

Much of this advice is either banal or plain contradictory, and little of it has any basis in fact. But it all comes with the message that if pregnant women don’t take it seriously, they will be letting their unborn child down. There is an increasing acceptance, fuelled by the fashionable idea of ‘early intervention’ in policy circles, that how you behave in pregnancy can have a long-term impact on your child’s future wellbeing. This has resulted in a separation between the interests of the pregnant woman and those of the fetus she is carrying, creating a space for all kinds of self-appointed experts to intervene on behalf of the unborn child and monitor the pregnant woman’s behaviour, with little regard for any choices that she herself might want to make.

It is not just pregnant smokers who will find themselves on the wrong side of these moral do-gooders. Just try something as simple as ordering a glass of wine with your meal while pregnant, and watch the reaction of your fellow diners to see how far concern for the fetus trumps the wishes of the mother-to-be.

With everyone thinking it is acceptable to have a go at Stacey Solomon in the name of her unborn child, one of the most pernicious aspects of the reaction to her smoking has been the attempt to drag her fiancé, Aaron Barnham, into the campaign to condemn her. On This Morning, Schofield and Willoughby asked Solomon how her fiancé feels about her smoking while pregnant, with the clear implication being that he should be telling her to stop. Solomon replied that he had been very supportive of her, because ‘what else could he be?’

Thankfully, it seems that while everyone else is happy to tell her how to behave, at least one person is prepared to treat her as the adult woman she is, and allow her to make her own decisions.

Sally Millard is a founder member of the Institute of Ideas Parents Forum.

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Topics Politics

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