Should It Be A Crime To Drink Alcohol During Pregnancy?

12/08/2014 15:01 | Updated 20 May 2015

Pregnant woman with a glass of wine

Should it be a crime to drink alcohol during pregnancy?

Yes? No? Maybe? OK - how much alcohol? A glass of champagne at a party? Six flaming sambucas? A bottle of vodka? Where do you draw the line?

It's tricky, isn't it? But a council in the north-west of England is trying to demonstrate that the mother of a six-year-old girl with foetal alcohol syndrome committed a crime by drinking during pregnancy.

The details of this case are horrible, and make prosecution seem almost reasonable. The girl's mother apparently drank 'grossly excessive quantities of alcohol' during her pregnancy. Foetal alcohol syndrome can be a horrendous condition, causing serious cognitive and physical disabilities. Clearly, drinking very heavily during pregnancy is a very bad idea.

The child has previously been ruled the victim of a crime; this was overruled by a judgement which said the girl was was 'not a person' at the time of the alleged offence, because she was still a foetus. Now the council is taking the case to the Court of Appeal.

But the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and charity Birthrights say criminalising pregnant women is not the solution.

Too right, it's not the solution. In fact, it's downright terrifying.

Pregnant women are already scrutinised closely and intrusively by society. Asked whether they are 'allowed' to drink that cup of coffee. Frowned upon for eating goat's cheese. Tutted at for riding a bicycle. Commented upon for being too big, or too small.

If it becomes a crime to drink during pregnancy (again, how much? Are we going to start breathalysing pregnant women?) then what else will be outlawed?

Let's criminalise women who exercise too vigorously during pregnancy. Let's criminalise women who fall off their bicycles. Let's criminalise women who go for a walk on an icy day. Let's criminalise women who eat Camembert, or out of date salad. Let's criminalise women who passively smoke. Let's criminalise women who continue to take prescription drugs. Let's criminalise women who work with hazardous chemicals.

The whole idea that we can criminalise women for drinking too much during pregnancy is based on the false premise that 'we know what's right and what's wrong'. We think it would be FINE to drink the odd glass of wine during pregnancy. We know it would be WRONG to down six pints of Stella every night.

But the trouble is, we don't know where the lines are drawn. Often, we don't know what causes miscarriages or birth defects. We don't know why some babies get foetal alcohol syndrome while others, whose mothers drink equally heavily, don't. We don't really know what's 'safe' in pregnancy.

But what we do need is to have the freedom to make our own decisions about what's right for us – even when we're pregnant.

We also need to be able to ask for help, with drink or drug problems, without the fear of criminalisation.

As Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights, which campaigns to improve women's experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights, say: "Viewing these cases as potentially criminal offences will do nothing for the health of women or their babies... We should take very seriously any legal developments which call into question the autonomy of pregnant women and right to make their own decisions."

We are advised to avoid alcohol in pregnancy – and we're advised to avoid a lot of other things too. Some of us follow the advice to the letter; some of us don't. Our bodies; our lives; our choices.

What do you think?

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