Foetus parties: Womb with a view?

By Prof Cathy Warwick
Royal College of Midwives, chief executive

image caption'People gather to look at scans of unborn babies'

The US tradition of having a baby shower to celebrate an impending birth is now commonplace in the UK. But "foetus parties", where people gather to view 3D and 4D scan pictures are also gaining in popularity.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, Prof Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, outlines her fears about the "commercialisation and the commodification of pregnancy and childbirth".

Births are becoming more complex. If we look at the age of mothers as an indicator of complexity, then in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the number of births to women aged over 40 years has increased by more than 50% since the start of the century.

With more mothers giving birth later in life, these mothers bring with them greater expectations and aspirations about childbirth.

Between 2001 and 2010, the number of births to women aged 40 or over rose by 71%.

This ageing of mothers means greater demands on maternity services as pregnancies to older women are more likely to involve complications, which demand more of midwives and others in the maternity team.

However, I think the worrying trend towards the commercialisation of pregnancy and trend in "foetus parties" can add to the burden and can increase the expectation for mothers which midwives then have to deal with.

There is a worry that supposed diagnostic scans are now being used for entertainment. Across the country services for "foetus" parties are popping up.

There are companies across the country that provide gifts for parties featuring images of the foetus from a fridge magnet for £3 to a teddy with 3D scan image for £15.

Some companies provide a champagne celebration scan package for £165 and a VIP scan package for £185. This is a far cry from the original purpose of ultrasound.

Foetal rights?

It was originally introduced as a screening tool to help early detection of babies with serious problems, allowing future planning of the pregnancy on the back of this.

Ultrasound is a vital technological support to women and professionals during pregnancy and, generally, aims to ensure that women can make informed decisions about their baby's future and that pregnancy management is tailored appropriately. For example, if a baby is found to be growing slowly a decision may be taken to deliver early.

However, the trend towards using ultrasound and technology via foetus parties as a "consumer tool" raises various ethical questions.

If a woman is celebrating much more overtly than she might normally do regarding a pregnancy at an early stage during the pregnancy and, then, at a later stage a serious problem emerges; a mother may need increased counselling after raising everyone's expectations of her pregnancy at a foetus party, only to learn of complications later on.

Also, does this escalate the thinking held by some that a foetus should have a life of its own before birth and, therefore, have rights of its own?

At the moment, UK law allows for the mother to make decisions on behalf of her baby until the baby is born. Using technology in this way seems to have the potential to upset this position and raises the spectrum of women being accused of doing wrong to their foetus, as happens in the USA.

Another issue that worries me is that there is the whole issue of the consumer society and who is able to access this new facility of having a 4D scan?

Does everyone have equal access to this celebratory technology or is it only something available to the better off and the rich and famous, leading to more class envy, alienation and a sense of inequity?

And last but not least, what about the foetus? Is this "yummy mummy" or WAG parenting taken to its absolute zenith and what does it do to the child being "branded" in this way?

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