Representations of preconception health in the media
Dr Kirsty Budds discusses her research on the implications of this for women of reproductive age.
Women have long been advised to adopt healthier behaviours once a pregnancy is confirmed – e.g. eating healthily, stopping smoking and reducing or avoiding alcohol intake. However, there is increasing concern that women’s health before they conceive – during the ‘preconception’ period - has an impact on pregnancy and birth outcomes. From this point of view, switching to healthier behaviours at the point a pregnancy is discovered may be too late and this has prompted calls for public health advice and interventions to be targeted at women before rather than during pregnancy to reduce any possible risks.
Whilst advice on how to manage risks within this period may be empowering, helping women to protect their babies’ health, this approach carries some significant implications for women of reproductive age. This research examines how information regarding preconception health advice is communicated within the media.
This study involved a qualitative analysis of 57 newspaper articles written about preconception health over a 5-year period. Three major themes were identified within the articles. Firstly, preconception health was constructed as a means by which women could take control over and ‘optimise’ their fertility. Secondly, a woman’s health status during the preconception period was said to determine the short- and long-term health outcomes of future children, implying that women are positioned as accountable for the health of children they are yet to conceive. Finally, the preconception period was constructed as a new and important focus for health interventions in order to improve pregnancy outcomes but also to tackle wider public health concerns. Within some articles it was suggested that the focus of these interventions should be women currently planning a pregnancy, whilst elsewhere interventions were to be aimed at all women of reproductive age in anticipation of a future pregnancy.
Altogether, this study showed how discussions of preconception health, pose significant implications for women of reproductive age, imposing limits on their choices and autonomy as they are expected to manage their lifestyles for the sake of future children. A follow-up study to examine how women planning a pregnancy negotiate information regarding preconception health and risk, in collaboration with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), is currently underway.