Generations of women have learned the hard way that, if you've got a pregnant belly or a brand-new baby, you'll likely be the target of unsolicited feedback from your community. For pregnant and parenting women living with HIV, that unwanted attention only gets worse, according to a recent study by Canadian researchers.
First, there's increased scrutiny from medical providers -- and, in some cases, an increased number of medical providers doing the scrutinizing. "When you go into the hospital there's always a random person that's checking your file," recalled one mom who found out she was positive while pregnant; "every day you are, like, melting cause you're like, 'Oh God!, one more person has seen that [I'm HIV positive].'"
Then there's the commentary from friends and family that the researchers found: judgment from peers for not nursing their babies; fear that such questioning would force them to disclose their HIV status; and a sense of loss at not having the chance to breastfeed.
And then there's the age-old suspicion that people living with HIV should not be having babies -- compounded in Canada by the country's penchant for bringing criminal law to bear in HIV-related matters.
Study author Saara Greene surmises that this enhanced surveillance can challenge, undermine and even strip away the authority of moms living with HIV. What are women to do? The answer, Greene suggests, begins with the HIV-positive mothers themselves: They must be lifted up and treated as equal partners with care providers, policymakers and researchers, and encouraged to lead discussions about how to provide support to HIV-positive mothers and moms-to-be -- not to simply be treated as research subjects, baby receptacles and data points.
For more on the study results, including recommendations for countering these stigmatizing phenomena, read Aidsmap's thorough summary.
Olivia Ford is the executive editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.