A court case in the UK could force Britain to criminalize heavy consumption of alcohol while pregnant, a controversial move even among health professionals. How did this case come about, and what are the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant?
The case in question is brought by a mother who adopted a child with disabilities that, she says, directly resulted from the child’s birth mother drinking heavily while pregnant despite knowing the risks to the unborn baby.
The child, who is now six years old, has cognitive problems. The child’s adoptive mother is calling on the Court of Appeals to issue a ruling that could prompt the British government to codify its advice against drinking while pregnant to make it a criminal offense. Were that to happen, it would be a first for the UK.
Current UK guidelines advise that women who are pregnant avoid drinking altogether. If they absolutely cannot abstain, guidelines say that they should not have alcohol at all in the early weeks of pregnancy and then have only 1-2 units of alcohol twice a week thereafter after. Women should never get drunk while pregnant and should never binge drink, the advice says. None of these guidelines are currently law and do not technically carry any legal weight. Yet, like in this court case, some campaigners say that the government needs to introduce a law because the problem is worsening.
To give a sense of the issue, the Department of Health is reported as estimating that about one in 100 babies are now born with alcohol related disorders, collectively known as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).
FAS occurs when alcohol crosses the placenta into the bloodstream of the unborn baby. This can result in a number of developmental and brain abnormalities. Drinking while pregnant has been associated with a number of health problems, including but not limited to:
- heart defects
- learning problems and behavior disorders
- facial deformities
- stunted physical and emotional development
- a possible cause of ADHD
- a possible cause of low birth weight
While arguably the number of cases of serious problems is not that high, the figure of FAS and FAS-like cases has seen a 50% increase over the past three years, and due to how hard it is to track these kinds of cases, the true figure may in fact be much higher.
While we may be less than keen to address this problem with legislation, campaigners point out there is some roughly analogous legislation in the UK parliament at the moment in the form a ban on smoking in cars where children are present. Why would we seek to prevent the ills of passive smoking yet not address what is essentially a form of passive alcohol consumption?
Supporters of the case say that this isn’t about punishing mothers, but that the government is (perhaps unintentionally) sending a mixed message by on the one hand calling on women to abstain from alcohol but at the same suggesting that consuming 1-2 units of alcohol is safe. While that might technically be true, supporters of the change say it is unhelpful and children may be suffering as a result.
Not everyone is convinced criminalizing drinking is appropriate, though. Susan Fleisher of the group NOFAS-UK, which raises awareness about the dangers of consuming alcohol during pregnancy, has said that criminalization would be counterproductive. The problem, she says, is that women don’t in fact know why drinking is bad during pregnancy. Furthermore, Fleisher adds, women with a dependence on alcohol aren’t being given the help they need to address that problem and find substitutes for their drinking behaviors.
“Women can’t be prosecuted for something they don’t know about, and, to be fair, women who are alcoholics, who have an issue with drinking, should be given support and should be given information so they know there’s a chance they could harm another life.”
Other issues raised against this change include concerns as to how cases of unlawful drinking could in fact be established. The only perhaps reliable way would be to have doctors monitor blood alcohol but this could drive a wedge between women and their health team and lead to women risking their own and their baby’s health simply because they do not want to get caught — by any standard, that’s not a good direction.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals can refuse to hear this case and perhaps it should as it seems that a legislative approach is far too overbearing. Whatever the outcome of the Court of Appeals decision though, it is clear that British MPs need to address this issue, if not through legislation then by encouraging health outreach programs and better pregnancy support, so that health authorities can help women make informed decisions and take the steps they need to ensure their child’s health.
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