The very definition of patronizing

Dr. Samantha Decombel is a British geneticist who was invited to give a talk at a conference in Brussels. Then the organizers learned that she was pregnant, and they revoked the invitation. Because, they said, they were concerned about the risk of travel to her health.

You know, European Commission, pregnancy is not usually considered a disease, and it’s awfully patronizing of you to make health decisions for people you haven’t met, and for whom you have no knowledge of their actual medical condition.

What’s next? Will you decide to withdraw invitations to scientists who are too fat, too old, who are afraid of flying? Do you only make executive decisions about the health of speakers who are women? Have you considered asking invited men about the status of their families? Oh, you can’t come, your wife is 7 months pregnant and you should stay home to help her; no, no, you’ve got two young children, it would be irresponsible of us to ask you to part from them for a few days, they desperately need you.

I can pretty much guarantee those scenarios never happen.

There’s a general principle involved here, that we should allow people to make their own reasonably well-informed health decisions. Except, apparently, in the case of women, who are too innocent and childlike to be trusted with their own bodies.


  1. marcoli says

    Well, this sh*t happens and it should not. Years ago my wife gave a job interview while entering her 9th month of pregnancy. It involved a long round trip plane flight, interviews, giving a talk, etc. It went well and she got the job. So the above b.s. does not always happen.
    As an additional note, you know there are likely non-discrimination policies regarding sex and race, etc for the organization behind this meeting. I hope ‘pregnancy’ is seen as a relevant variable for ones’ sex, and if so she could call them out for that. But, dammit, what a pain in the ass to have to do that.

  2. says


    But, dammit, what a pain in the ass to have to do that.

    It’s much more than a pain in the ass. Assuming there is any policy in place to begin with (that’s a big fuckin’ if), why should any woman be judged in any way because she happens to be pregnant? People are making decisions for an adult person, reducing her to child status. Women are constantly judged for being pregnant. Women are constantly judged for not being pregnant. When it comes to working and being pregnant, the majority of men think they can read her mind and her future intent, so feel comfortable withdrawing job offers and more, because, yes, a man always knows exactly what a woman will do. Yep. It’s very nice your wife lucked out, Marcoli, but that’s not what happens with most women.

    I was invited to speak at this years conference in Brussels as a young female scientist and entrepreneur, who has set up two companies and raised over £1M in funding and grants to support the research around our ideas. As this is an area I am passionate about I agreed to speak and offer my experiences and views. As I am sure you are aware, one of the key hurdles facing many women in science and entrepreneurship is the desire to start a family, and how this will fit in with their career plans. As @sherylsandberg, COO of Facebook, has said in the past, so many women ‘leave before they leave’ in anticipation of starting a family due to the guilt of juggling these two apparently contradictory options, taking on less responsibility within their role, taking a back seat in key decision-making and effectively putting the brakes on their career prospects before they actually need to, ensuring that on their return to work they are already at a disadvantage. I do not intend to put the brakes on my ambitions until I need to, and would encourage others to consider why we lay this guilt on female researchers that wish to have both a career and a family. Turning away a pregnant speaker, who is in excellent health and has voluntarily agreed to travel to voice her opinions at this event seems to me to be the perfect demonstration of why this is still such an issue for many, and the absolute opposite of what I would hope the European Commission would want to convey. I cannot see what risk my presence at this event would represent for the EC, and hope you will reconsider your decision to withdraw my voice on account of what should be considered a perfectly natural occurance that likely around half of your audience will experience at some stage in their lives. I would hope that they would not be encouraged to ‘leave before they leave’ on account of having made the choice to start their own family”.

    She concluded, depressingly,

    Disappointingly, I did not receive a reply to this email.

  3. qwints says

    I hope ‘pregnancy’ is seen as a relevant variable for ones’ sex, and if so she could call them out for that.

    Laws against pregnancy discrimination exist in the EU, but they tend to be gutted by paternalistic health concerns as in this case.

    The Pregnant Workers Directive8 is primarily aimed at improving health and safety at work
    for pregnant workers, workers who have recently given birth and workers who are
    breastfeeding. It provides for two sorts of measures, namely health and safety and protection
    against unfavourable treatment. In terms of leave, Directive 92/85/EEC provides for a number
    of specific forms of leave for pregnant workers and women who have recently given birth.
    Article 5(3) of Directive 92/85/EEC obliges employers to grant a pregnant worker a leave of
    absence to protect her health and safety and that of the foetus if moving the worker to another
    job is not technically and/or objectively feasible or cannot reasonably be required on duly
    substantiated grounds.

  4. EigenSprocketUK says

    Quints #4, they could certainly try to use paternalistic Health concerns, but they’d also have to show that they had a policy of denying flights to everyone over 7 months’ pregnancy.
    If they already had such a policy, they’re open to a straightforward challenge to prove that it’s reasonably based on good medical advice (of course, it’s not) and that it is reasonably consistent with other medical policies which apply to men being denied flights with similarly slightly risk-increasing medical conditions. In other words, that it’s not just paternalistic concern being patronisingly applied only to delicate wimmin. I’d like to think that they’d be unable to defend that, so I’d hope that no such policy (no flights for pregnant women) would exist in the first place.
    And, of course, they’d also have to show that they made some reasonable adjustments (like saying would you like to come by train instead).
    I hope that the reason they never replied to her polite enquiry was simply because they realised they had already messed up, and were in the middle of consulting damage-limitation lawyers.

  5. duncanbooth says

    The good news is that Sam reports: “This issue was all about choice, and women having the right to do what they know is best for them. I’m pleased to say that the European Commission finally published their full formal apology online this morning, which I’ll be sharing further shortly. I’m glad that they have finally acknowledged this was an unacceptable situation and have accepted collective responsibility, with further assurances that this won’t be allowed to happen again.”
    Not that it should have happened in the first place.

  6. qwints says

    @EigenSprocketUK, the report I linked suggests such discrimination, at least by airlines in the EU, is a widespread practice. I know that US airlines also require a medical certificate.

    p 26

    Other issues have been identified by the experts. One of the most common complaints is the one related to the airline practices that impose conditions on pregnant women. Generally, pregnant women can fly only if in possession of a medical certificate stating that they are ‘fit to fly’ after a certain period of about 28 weeks of pregnancy and after some more weeks there is a total ban. The number of ‘qualifying’ weeks varies depending on the airline, and thus also greatly varies between Member States. Such practice is often justified by the airline company on grounds of health and safety, but there appears to be no clear research backing these policies and it appears that the airline companies are only trying to avoid the inconvenience of an accidental delivery while in mid-air. The practice is reported by all the experts and its legality is questionable under the Goods and Services Directive, although there has not been any legal challenge.

    p. 140-141

    In one case, where a pregnant traveller was denied return passage by an airline, the Equality Tribunal decided that it was not the pregnancy that was the reason for the refusal but the stage of the pregnancy and the issue of safety

  7. EigenSprocketUK says

    Quints— totally agree. Getting a doctor to check your pregnancy is OK so far doesn’t seem too arduous (in the UK). I guess that a large part of how equitably airlines apply a medical-safety policy is down to the airline, it doesn’t surprise me that they’re risk-averse. I agree that the airlines are almost certainly being more patronising about pregnant people than they are about wheezy overweight blokes with emphysema because they’ll be ultra-scared of unpredictable and potentially hugely costly damages to a foetus. For the pregnant passenger, a doc would be more cautious about a high-altitude transatlantic flight than a quick intra-EU hop at a lower altitude.
    The train company from Britain to Brussels won’t even ask a pregnant person to produce a certificate. Pretty much pointless – you’ll be at a major city train station almost before the ambulance arrives.
    Disclaimer: I’m not a doc, nor an EU lawyer. It’s just my guess about the factors involved.
    Either way, for this case the EU folks didn’t even ask if she would be flying, they didn’t even ask if she would be OK to fly, they didn’t even say “your responsibility to get yourself here safely”, they just rescinded the invitation. And that sucks. I’m glad they apologised. It’s a start. Tiny tiny start.

  8. says

    Cases like this make me wonder how much bullshit occurred in the past that we never heard about because the victims were never in a position to make noise about it.

  9. Joey Maloney says

    Well, I’m sure as a patriotic dumbass-American, Erick von Erick von Erick only eats real American food, like squash and maize hamburgers and pizza.

  10. Rivendellyan says

    But PZ, don’t you get it? Women just aren’t thinking right when pregnant because of the hormones and such! Think of the baby! Surely, you don’t think a woman’s autonomy is more important the the process going on in her body that will result a little mons I MEAN beautiful creature!
    (Yes, it’s sarcasm. … I’m sorry)