Should Heavy Alcohol Consumption While Pregnant be a Crime?

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:

  • miscarriage
  • 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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Patti Ruocco
Patti Ruocco3 years ago

So, to enforce this, they will do what? There was an old sci-fi story about women having to wear bracelets--so if they drank, or smoked or let their pulse get too high (like with making love) they would then be put in prison and their every move monitored--after all they were only 'receptacles'-Will we then police how much weight they gain so there aren't so many diabetic babies? But we never think about how depression and imprisonment of the mom affect the child--and many of us can tell you about that!!

--I was told by my midwives that after working a 12 hour night shift, if I needed to drink 3-4 oz of wine to sleep, that was better than what sleep deprivation would do to the pregnancy. My baby was fine.

If a woman's judgement is to be trusted in raising a child, she needs to be trusted to make her own health care decisions. Yes education is needed---but in Baltimore we found that if you made it clear you were prosecuting drug addicted moms--they either didn't tell you about their addiction so we weren't ready for a high risk kid in L&D--or they delivered at home, and there were even more complications. And not all moms want or deserve to be policed with their every move...and if we allow this, it is a slippery slope and will go farther than we can imagine....

Lynn C.
Lynn C3 years ago

Oh - - - so we can jail them???

Luna Starr
luna starr3 years ago

selfish "moms" do

Lynn C.
Lynn C3 years ago


Ron C.
Ron C3 years ago

cont'd...but awareness, or a responsibility for awareness, of the associated risk of a behaviour is very important for a criminal act to occur...and this is where education comes in.

Ron C.
Ron C3 years ago

Wow...I wondered if perpetual perceived female victimhood would enter into the discussion...well it has...what trumps what...a woman's freedom to do whatever she wants verses damaging a baby...nobody should be allowed to harm someone else without repercussions.
This is not about damaging a fetus and whether or not a fetus attains personhood....this is about a pregnancy taken to term and the delivery of a damaged baby because of the choices a woman makes.
Re the comments that a woman may not know she is pregnant...well she knows she had sex....unprotected sex maybe she shouldnt drink until she finds out whether or not she is pregnant given that there is a good chance she is.
Re the comments about the woman may be an what...drinking has long been eliminated as a defence in committing a crime...she should get help if she cant control herself and protect the baby from harm.
There is no excuse for this and attempting to address it is not men trying to control women...women do not get a free pass when it comes to harming another.
I believe however that there should be absolutely no criminalization of anything to prevent this from happening...but the negative outcome of a damaged baby should be criminalized...this may seem to be too late to some..but there is no limit to the intrusiveness of preventative laws...but once harm is done then a criminal act has been committed...but awareness, or a responsibility for awareness, of the associated risk of a

Shanti S.
S S3 years ago

Thank you.

Debra L. Watson
Debra L Watson3 years ago

Oh hell ya! I think it should be against the law.

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy3 years ago

In the 60's they did not tell women not to drink. I drank limes and water at home not booze.
I did drink some out dinner only...and not was pediatricians who told me that my son's allergies were from agent orange as his father was in Vietnam..... I win.

Ana Luisa Luque M.

If you are pregnant or you think you are, why do you drink? and drink in such a heavy quantities? God, a baby is in you and you are the only thing that matters to you, so selfish.