Doctors stole my baby! The curious phenomena of the phantom pregnancy

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This morning newspapers carried the story of a young Brazilian woman who is taking legal action against a hospital, claiming they have stolen her baby, or covered up its death. She entered the hospital visibly pregnant, complaining of abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. She was anaesthetised for an emergency c-section, but woke up without a baby. The hospital are claiming that this was a case of ‘phantom pregnancy‘.

V.S. Ramachandran describes the bizarre phenomena of pseudocyesis or ‘hysterical pregnancy’ in his book ‘Phantoms In The Brain‘. The body develops many of the physical signs of pregnancy, accompanied by a strong belief that the individual truly is pregnant. Individuals may experience swelling in the abdomen, changes in menstruation, depositing of fat around the belly and lactation, amongst other symptoms. Often it will only take an in-depth examination from a medical professional to discern that a foetus is not present.

In some mammals such as cats and dogs, pseudo-pregnancy is more common and has been linked to the continued presence of the corpus luteum, which causes the signs of pregnancy. In humans the condition is believed to be psychological in origin and to relate to an overwhelming desire to have a child. Pseudocyesis is however, rare today. In the late 1700s, one in 200 pregnancies were believed to be ‘phantoms’. Now the incidence is closer to one in 10,000. This has been linked to changes over time in the pressures on women to conceive and give offspring, as well as advances in scanning techniques. In the modern age, an ultrasound can easy confirm a pregnancy. In previous centuries women might receive little education on pregnancy and childbirth and would have had little way of confirming a pregnancy other than going on outward physical signs. Many would have had little contact with a midwife prior to the birth. Indeed, often presenting the women with the ‘evidence’ of her (un)pregnancy is enough to resolve the condition. The pregnancy is not staged by the woman (though many people have lied about a pregnancy for secondary gain, few are actually capable of manipulating their own hormonal levels or altering the position of their spine). Men too have been seen to develop some phsyical symptoms in a ‘sympathic pregnancy’ (otherwise known as Couvade Syndrome), although this tends not to be accompanied with the same strong belief of pregnancy.

Pseudocyesis appears quite strange, although it has some similarities with the better known ‘placebo effect’ (when individuals’ health improves when they believe they are receiving treatment, regardless of whether the treatment is active), offers a fascinating insight into the way our minds can control our bodies, seemingly beyond our conscious awareness.

Layane Santos displays her visibly swollen belly

So what is happening in the case of Layane Santos? If, as she states, she had previously had an ultrasound that confirmed the birth, this would be convincing evidence that she really was pregnant.The hospital claims to have run tests before the ‘delivery’ that showed she was not carrying a baby. It is therefore a little questionable as to why they are not revealing these results, or why indeed they chose to anaesthetise Santos at all. If she was indeed not pregnant, the evidence of such should be straight-forward.

Undoubtedly the couple very much wanted a child and were quite invested in the pregnancy (as many couples are). A Brazilian newspaper claims that they had “already named their daughter Sofia, moved to a bigger house and had spent $3000 on clothes and furniture for their first child“. In pseudocyesis, although the pregnancy is not ‘real’, the news that one will not have a baby is obviously very distressing and there may be disbelief, given the many physical symptoms, that they were not pregnant.

It seems unlikely that a hospital would ‘steal’ a child, but while the hospital withhold details of their tests, it cannot be confirmed that Ms Santos was not pregnant. I shall be watching this case with interest…

(Images from GoogleImages)

Layane Santos

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