The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

March 19, 2019 by

The Chelsea Clinton Uproar and the Public Perception of Pregnancy

It’s not a great look to berate pregnant folks. It’s especially not a good look when the person you’ve chosen to yell at has only the most tangential connection to what you’re upset about. We can argue with Chelsea Clinton’s ill-considered phrasing in her Twitter criticism of Ilhan Omar, but to accuse her of being the primary agent “stoking hatred” for Muslims on social media and inciting the Christchurch massacre is…well, the kind of thing a grieving undergraduate student activist might do in the heat of the moment after 50 people have been slaughtered by a white nationalist while they pray. It’s understandable. 

But what’s less understandable is the insane reaction to this viral confrontation. Fox, Breitbart, and other such notably Chelsea-Clinton-friendly outlets responded to the story by sympathizing with the former First Daughter, and almost universally made a point to note that she was “heavily pregnant” or “pregnant with her third child” when the incident occurred. On Twitter, when feminist author Jill Filipovic asked—quite mildly—whether we should really be so concerned about Chelsea’s supposedly fragile condition, the responses amounted to a full-throated defense of the delicate state of pregnancy and white womanhood. “You could send in her into labor!” wailed tweet upon tweet. “Stress is terrible for pregnancy!” lamented more.

While it is good for the fabric of society to treat all pregnant people (or, simply, people) with dignity and respect, the faux-respect invoked by the outrage at the young women, Rose Asaf and Leen Dweik, is good for no one. 

In fact, no pregnant body benefits from the rhetorical back-and-forth that protects (some) of us from a nebulous concept of “stress.” Wealthy white women find themselves blocked from “stressful” high-paying jobs during pregnancy or pushed out of the white-collar workforce entirely; meanwhile, poor women of color, their bodies often falsely figured in public discourse as more robust than white women’s, find themselves expected to continue to work for Amazon warehouses until they do, in fact, go into premature labor or worse.

Our internet-era concept of civility—don’t raise your voice! don’t yell!—fails us when it becomes a tool used to ignore larger systemic injustices. In this truly bizarre Chelsea Clinton news cycle, perhaps the massive human toll of the Islamophobic attack—and our own complicity in normalized Islamophobia—was too much to confront. So instead, everyone took sides: team “call out Chelsea” vs. team “defend Chelsea.”

Yet the latter group’s hand-wringing over her delicate condition also erased another massive systemic injustice: the horrendous rates of maternal morbidity and mortality in the U.S., the racial disparities that make black women up to three times as likely to die in childbirth, and the paucity of research into pregnancy complications—in particular premature labor, what Chelsea’s defenders claim to be so concerned about. 

Doctors still have almost no idea of the biological mechanisms that actually cause premature labor, and in 2019 one of the front-line solutions to the problem is to sew the cervix shut and tell the patient to lie down until delivery.

As for pre-eclampsia, one of the highest risk factors for premature labor and delivery? Nope, no idea what causes that one either, and no idea how to fix it besides playing a game of chicken where you gamble the risk of the mother stroking out against that of a premature baby that may go on to either die or experience devastating lifelong health consequences.  

In the face of this lack of concrete knowledge, American pregnancy culture appeals to “stress.” “Avoid stress!” pleads the March of Dimes, before, towards the very end of the page, noting that “We don’t completely understand the effects of stress on pregnancy.” Remember that your most important job is taking care of your baby! insists What to Expect When You’re Expecting, in a page discussing—gasp—working an office job while pregnant.

The insistence that normal life-stress can cause severe pregnancy complications papers over the actual research on stress and pregnancy, which itself points to a different order of stress than “multi-millionaire white woman gets screamed at by a Jewish student in public.” 

Instead, the racial disparities in maternal mortality point to severe inequalities, which cut across class boundaries and on which we collect almost no data as a country. This kind of systemic, lifelong stress—the stress of racism and trauma—may well explain, at least in part, the high rates of premature labor and pre-eclampsia among black women in the U.S.  

Fretting about whether or not the doubtless unpleasant experience of being publicly shamed will send Chelsea Clinton into labor has no more basis in scientific reality than past beliefs in a “maternal imagination” so powerful that looking at a distressing animal or disabled person could directly cause birth defects. What it does do is let us off the hook of meaningful advocacy for women’s health. 

If the sight of a capable pregnant woman being admonished by students outrages you and you want to help women like Chelsea Clinton have a healthy pregnancy, the best thing you can do for that is donate to and vote for candidates and organizations that promote research into women’s reproductive health—including abortion care. That work doesn’t have the easy clickbait appeal of Team Defend Chelsea, but it’s our best way out of the alarmist pregnancy culture of ‘stress’ and towards meaningful reproductive justice.   


  • breatheandthink

    Yes, thank you!! I’m writing a paper on this confrontation and the
    reaction that followed using thousands of tweets I captured while the
    video was going viral. How is it that people can be so blinded by their
    associations of white pregnant woman with fragility that they can leap
    to Clinton’s defense when this young woman is speaking up for her
    community out of grief and pain, a community that just experienced a
    brutal massacre? Perhaps you’re right that it was easier emotionally to
    react to this confrontation than to its causes. And it’s not just white
    people and conservatives leaping to Clinton’s defense (I write this as a
    white person), though they do seem to form the majority of the Team
    Clinton camp, as you put it, not surprisingly. Why are so many
    non-Muslim Americans so unaware about their Islamophobia? How do we
    encourage a more self-aware disposition in the American public?