The primary process of a woman growing a baby in her belly is pretty much the same the world over. Some women may need interventions and help to get or stay pregnant, but the actual baking of that bun in the oven doesn’t change much. While we may be aware of the ways in which different cultures perceive pregnancy, we may not give much thought to the impacts on pregnant women according to when they were moms-to-be.
It is especially challenging to be expecting during a time of war. Not only is there the stress and worry of your family members being in danger, but you may be living under the rule of a hostile invader. There might be food shortages, or the food available may not be the best for a growing baby. The flip side of that is, of course, that some women were living in situations where they had plenty of food, minimum stress and were pampered because of their “condition.”
In this post, we are going to explore how women from all walks of life experienced pregnancy during World War II. Women from all sides of the war and multiple countries are featured along with some back-stories of their pregnancies.
15 Born In The USA
In her book “American Women During World War II” Doris Weatherford talks about how, for the vast majority of working pregnant women, there was no such thing as maternity rights.
Once Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, and the United States joined World War II in 1941 there was a tidal wave of men rushing to sign up with the armed forces. This left many essential jobs, especially in agriculture, other food production, and manufacturing, to be filled by American women.
However, as Business Week wrote at the time: “The first reaction of a production boss who finds one of his workers is pregnant is to 'get her out of here quick.' The chief reason for this is fear of a damage suit should the work result in injury or miscarriage. Some employers consider it ‘indeligate’ for an obviously pregnant woman to be seen in the work lace, and a few think it would be embarrassing for male workers.”
Unfortunately, there was no legislation to prevent an employer firing a woman for being pregnant, which was often when she needs the job most. For those who were kept their jobs, there was no paid time off for medical appointments, no benefits, no maternity leave, and no guarantee their job would be waiting for them after the baby was born.
14 American Army Nurses And Pregnancy
The leading cause of discharge from the military for women during World War II was what some women called PWOP (Pregnant WithOut Permission). At the beginning of the war, only single women were allowed to join the army nursing corps, and you had to obtain permission to get married. Once married you were discharged from service although as the war progressed married women were accepted.
If you were found to be pregnant, you were immediately discharged.
The only exception to this would be if your pregnancy were not discovered until a stage where it would be dangerous for you to travel. In those cases, you would be brought back from the front lines, and you and your baby would be shipped home a few weeks after the birth.
At the beginning of the war, unmarried nurses were dishonorably discharged, something usually reserved for convicted criminals. The Nursing Corps was so concerned about appearances that they kept no records of the shameful women who had become pregnant out of wedlock and even replaced the word pregnancy with cyesis.
This dishonorable discharge labeled the pregnant woman a criminal, and this caused not only personal distress but prevented her from obtaining specific help or work in the future.
13 Women With Military Husbands
In the United States you might imagine that the wives of men in the military might be helped and supported by the government but sadly the opposite was true.
At this time in history, the majority of women would leave school, take a job in a factory or a store and work there until they met a man and got married. Once they had taken their vows women were expected to keep their house neat and tidy and take care of their husbands while they waited for the babies to start coming.
Once America had entered the war hundreds of thousands of men signed up, many of them married with children or with children on the way. Some women who were left at home would have families to help support them, but many others had nobody and would follow their husbands from camp to camp so that the two of them could live a cheaply as possible.
Once rationing began there was no provision for extra nutrition for pregnant women, at a time when they needed the calories, vitamins, and minerals the most.
These pregnant women would have no jobs, no support and very little in the way of financial help; despite the fact, their husbands were going to war for the country.
12 Pregnant Experiments
The Japanese were not only responsible for atrocities against women in their home countries and the women they forced in brothels, but they also conducted experiments on pregnant women and their fetuses.
While it is well known that the Nazi’s carried out horrific human experiments in the concentration camps what the general public is less well aware of is that the Japanese were also experimenting on people in the name of science.
In the infamous “Unit 731”, soldiers took advantage of female prisoners against their will with the express intention of impregnating them. These women were subjected to repeated harm until the pregnancy was confirmed, then their condition was used to “research” how various diseases were passed from mother to baby and what effect the illnesses had on the growing baby.
Of particular interest to the Japanese was if syphilis could be transmitted between mother and bay so once prisoners had their pregnancy confirmed they would be purposely infected with the disease. These women and their babies were then vivisected with women at different stages of pregnancy being chosen order to track how the developing fetus was impacted.
Fetal survival and the damage to a mother's reproductive organs were also stated objects of interest and although "a large number of babies were born in captivity," there have been no accounts of any survivors of Unit 731, children included. It is suspected that any surviving children of female prisoners and the mothers themselves were sacrificed, or the pregnancies terminated to “reuse” the mother.
11 Wives Of German Soldiers
It is well known that the Nazi’s were intent or breeding what they considered to be an “Aryan Master Race.” There were several aspects to this plan, the most obvious and the most horrific being the extermination of the Jewish race because the Nazi’s thought them to be “inferior.”
Other races, religions, and pretty much anyone who disagreed with the Reich was in danger to minimize the “bad seed,” but there were also programs in place to ensure pure breeding among the remaining population.
The Lebensborn was one such program, but there were others. “Good Germans” were instructed to produce as many children as they could for the “master race.” SS officers, who were considered the German elite were told that if they married and their wife failed to produce a child within five years, they were to divorce her and find another woman.
This led to the wives of Nazi’s becoming fanatical about their health and well being. When they fell pregnant, these women were treated like porcelain dolls for fear of losing the baby and therefore losing their position in society. The constant fear and stress led to many women suffering from conditions related to high blood pressure, putting them in danger of the very fate they were trying to avoid.
10 Children Of The Enemy
In a strange, no man's land in all countries involved in the war was those women who fell pregnant with the child of someone who was considered “the enemy.” These were not the women who were assaulted or who slept with the enemy in order to survive; these were the women who chose to be intimate with men from “the other side.”
If a woman who was a “collaborator” became pregnant with a child of the enemy, they would never know what might happen to them. At best they may have a genuine relationship with the man involved who might then marry the woman and make a life with them after the war in the enemies home country. This would not have been easy as the woman would have been met with suspicion and hostility. The alternative was that these women were left holding the baby and ostracized by their own community for having the baby of the enemy.
Either way, to fall pregnant as a collaborator was to ensure nine months of misery, uncertainty, and worry followed by a life of suspicion and ostracization.
9 Pregnant In Occupied China
To have been a civilian in Northeast China during World War II would have been a terrifying experience for anyone
but the people who were in the worst position may have been those women who were visibly pregnant.
According to the confessions of a Japanese Commander, Lieutenant-General Suzuki Keiku, who was convicted for war crimes, his troops made their way across the North of China, from 1937-1945. Not only did they burn down villages, take the lives of the men and sleep with the women in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the area, they also took any woman who was visibly pregnant when they entered a village and cut open her belly to remove the fetus. If the baby were viable, they would end its life.
Pregnant women lived in constant fear of the day the Japanese might arrive in their village and end the lives of their unborn child. This was done while the mother was still alive, and conscious, at least in the beginning she was so that she would be in incredible physical pain. In some ways, it was fortunate that the mothers in these cases would lose their life from their wounds because it is unimaginable how grievous it would have been.
In his confession, Lieutenant-General Keiku Suzuki, a commander in Japan's War of Aggression against China said that on one day in April 1942 he and the soldiers under his command : "cruelly [eliminated] 235 Chinese peasants seeking refuge in a village near Lujiayu (cutting open the bellies of pregnant women among them), burned down houses of about 800 households, [ended the lives of] 5 captives to be delivered to Yutian, and [assaulted] as many as 100 women".
8 Pregnant In England At The Start Of The War
Nazi Germany began the bombing of London in September 1940. Until this point, the Germans had concentrated on bombing the Royal Air Force Fighter Command bases, but their inability to beat them led to Hitler's change of tactic.
Apart from one night when the weather was too rough to fly England was bombed for 76 nights in a row which, as you might expect, became an emotional strain on the population in general and pregnant women in particular.
In recognition of the danger to the vulnerable members of society, the order was given to evacuate women with children under the age of five, children, some disabled people and pregnant women.
These women were told to pack one suitcase and were then sent off to live with a family of strangers in an area of the country that was deemed safe from bombing. They would have no family to support them, no access to their existing medical support, and no social circle. It must have been terrible to be shipped to a strange home where you knew nobody just at the time in your life when you need the support of your family and friends.
Medical care was patchy at best and at worst overcrowded or unavailable at all.
7 The Japanese Experience
Meanwhile, in Japan, “ethnically pure” Japanese woman were encouraged to become pregnant as often as possible. It was seen to be their duty to produce as many boys as they could because soldiers were needed for the empire. Although boys were preferred, because they could fight, girls were also welcomed because they, in turn, would be able to produce more babies for the Empire.
Pregnant women in Japan were expected to stay at home and take great pains over their own health and safety. Nothing was more important than ensuring both mom and baby would remain fit and healthy until the delivery and beyond.
Women who were pregnant were not allowed to work outside of the home. This was because these women were not to strain themselves either physically or mentally while they were carrying the future of the empire.
Light domestic duties were allowed but other women, who were not with child, were expected to take on some of the burdens of housework so that the mom-to-be could have as much rest as possible.
Moms-to-be were prayed for, and they also made regular visits to their family shrine, performing traditional religious rituals to ensure the baby would be watched over by God.
6 Pregnant In England In The Middle Of The War
Women who became pregnant during later stages of the war still had the option to go and live somewhere else, but many chose to stay at home with their loved ones, despite the problems they would face.
Many medical professionals had been called up to serve in the war effort and had been posted around the world, so there were limited options when it came to medical care. A schedule of antenatal visits was set by the government to support healthy pregnancies and consequently growing the population, but it was rare to see the same doctor or midwife twice.
Hospital births were encouraged and those who wanted to have a home birth, which at the time was common, were discouraged.
Admission to the hospital was encouraged before the due date, but this led to overcrowding as many hospitals had been bombed and were no longer usable. Once in the hospital moms-to-be would have to leave their beds and make their way down into basements during the air-raids. These basements would be dirty and filled with old apparatuses and junk.
Newborns were housed in a special section of the basement, but once you had given birth, there was no room for you so new moms would be sent back up to the ward and only able to see their baby during an air-raid.
5 Comfort Women In Japan
It is a fact of war that, despite the international community declaring it illegal, women are often treated abusively by enemy forces.
During World War II Japan put in place a system of government-run brothels populated with women and girls who had been offered jobs in factories only to find they were imprisoned as prostitutes. The Japanese called these “comfort women,” and they also filled the brothels with female prisoners of war and girls that were kidnapped from their homes.
As no contraceptive measures were taken, many of the women became pregnant. The testimony of one “comfort Woman” said “This Japanese soldier said that the [pregnant] women were taken out and used for bayonet practice and that the baby and the woman were killed together. He said no one knows how many women were killed that way, [but it] must be tens of thousands.”
Pregnancy was terrifying for “comfort women.” If their lives were not ended their fate was not much better. Song Shindo, another victim of the Japanese, told a commission on human rights:
“Many ‘comfort women' got pregnant. The pregnant women were not allowed a rest period, and some were expelled from the brothel. I got pregnant. I was forced to keep [doing it], and my first pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth at seven months. I gave birth alone in my room. It was a difficult labor, and when the baby’s body came out, it was dark purple and already dead. I had other pregnancies in addition to the two births, but because I was expelled for each pregnancy, I induced early termination with a folk remedy (at eight weeks, refrain from moving and eating for three days and then drink a mixture made from the root of a certain kind of plant).”
4 Gentiles In Camps
While the Nazi’s were working on their “final solution” to eliminate all Jewish people, they also deported others such as Poles, who they considered racially inferior, to the concentrations camps.
Women who were deported from Poland and Russia were used as free labor for the German war effort and were often hurt and 'encouraged' to submit to do it with the guards in return for food or other basic necessities.
As a result of some women from Russia, Poland, and sometimes Yugoslavia, became pregnant after German soldiers took advantage of them against their will. Many women would try to hide their pregnancy in the hope they could escape or that the war would end before they began to show. Women who were discovered to be past the point of abortion were considered a drain on resources and were often sent to the gas chambers so learning they were “with child” was a terrifying realization.
Those who admitted to being pregnant were examined by “race-experts” who would assess the woman and the father if known, and would decide if the child was good enough to be “Germanized.”
Most were not and these women, if they were otherwise of use, would undergo forcible abortions.
Those who were left pregnant were sent to makeshift nurseries where the baby would be taken from them at birth, never to be seen again.
3 Jewish Women In Camps
During the “sortings” of deportation, women who were found to be pregnant were said to be “incapable of work” and were immediately sentenced. When the pregnant women arrived at the concentration camps, they would be sent directly to the gas chambers with SS Officers often happy that by “[with] one jew you were [eliminating] two.”
One woman, Fela Herling, was in a camp with her husband and fell pregnant. She told her husband about the baby shortly before the couple was separated and sent to different camps.
In the Leipzig-Schönefeld women’s camp, Fela did everything she could to cover up her expanding belly. This meant seeking out the broadest female prisoner clothing that she was able to get, gathering together several rags, and binding them together around her body.
At one point, news spread throughout the camp that a woman had given birth to a child. As a consequence, the camp’s S.S. officials lined up all the women and told them to confess, if any one of them was pregnant, lest she causes the other women in her block to be severely punished. Upon hearing this, Fela stepped forward, publicly revealing that which she had kept so well-hidden for so long. At this point, she was already beyond the eighth month.
Fela was immediately sentenced to deportation and gassing, but as this was March 1945, and the Nazi’s were crumbling. Luckily for Fela, there were no further transports, and she gave birth to a son five weeks before the camp was liberated.
2 The Lebensborn
Approximately 8,000 children were born during World War II in Germany and around 12,000 in Norway as part of Lebensborn. Formed by SS leader Heinrich Himmler to encourage women of pure blood to bear blond, blue-eyed children the Lebensborn program provided a system of homes where women could go to give birth to their babies and, if they wanted too, give them up for adoption to a German family.
The Jewish Virtual Library says:
“The purpose of this society (Registered Society Lebensborn - Lebensborn Eingetragener Verein) was to offer to young girls who were deemed “racially pure” the possibility to give birth to a child in secret.
The child was then given to the SS organization which took charge of the child’s education and adoption. Both mother and father needed to pass a “racial purity” test.
Blond hair and blue eyes were preferred, and family lineage had to be traced back at least three generations. Of all the women who applied, only 40 percent passed the racial purity test and were granted admission to the Lebensborn program. The majority of mothers were unmarried, 57.6 percent until 1939, and about 70 percent by 1940.”
Women who were pregnant but who did not pass the purity test would not receive any medical care or support and would be sent home to give birth alone.
1 Babies Of Hongerwinter
Towards the end of the war, the Germans occupying the western region of The Netherlands limited the rations of everyone living in the region. This was in retaliation to a railway strike which severely disrupted the movement of German troops and supplies.
The famine affected everyone regardless of social standing, age, gender or health issues. The Dutch people of this period received as little as 400-800 calories each a day, and no extra provision was made for pregnant women.
If you were carrying a child at this time your entire day was consumed with trying to find extra calories for you and your growing baby. The trouble was that there were so few rations for everyone that by accepting a donation of someone else's ration you might be sentencing them to the end of their life. Some women were forced to choose between feeding their existing children or eating enough to stay alive themselves. Others were saved by family members intentionally sacrificing themselves so their pregnant loved one could carry a child to term.
Subsequent academic research on the children who were affected in the second trimester of their mother’s pregnancy found an increased incidence of schizophrenia in these children. Also increased among them were the rates of schizotypal personality and neurological defects.
References: english.cntv.cn, bbc.co.uk, sciencedirect.com, historyextra.com, ushmm.org, repository.law.umich.edu, history.amedd.army.mil, spiegel.de, nationalpost.com