Drinking In Pregnancy: Pregnant Women Who Drink Alcohol Could Face Prosecution

08/12/2014 10:38 | Updated 20 May 2015

Drinking in pregnancy: Pregnant women who drink alcohol could face prosecution

Pregnant women who drink alcohol could be prosecuted following a test case currently being heard by the Court of Appeal.

A local authority is seeking criminal injuries compensation after a six-year-old girl was left with growth problems caused by her mother's alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

If the court agrees the woman committed a crime, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) and Birthrights claim it could pave the way for pregnant women's behaviour to be criminalised.

The girl was born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which can cause growth and facial abnormalities and intellectual impairment.

John Foy QC, barrister for the local authority in the North of England that has brought the case, told the court today (Nov 5): "It's not disputed that the mother administered a noxious thing, it could be described as a destructive thing, to her daughter and it inflicted grievous bodily harm on her.

"The child was born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder... We say it's on all fours with manslaughter."

The mother is no longer in contact with the child, who has suffered developmental problems.

Foetal alcohol syndrome can result in babies being born with brain damage as well as distorted facial features.

The local authority won its claim in the initial hearing but lost in the upper administrative tribunal on the grounds that an unborn child is not a person in law and therefore no criminal offence could have been committed.

Then, the tribunal concluded: ''If (the girl) was not a person while her mother was engaging in the relevant actions then... as a matter of law, her mother could not have committed a criminal offence.''

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) was diagnosed 252 times in England from 2012 to 2013. But charities claim there is 'continuing uncertainty' over the relationship between drinking and harm to the foetus.

And they say mothers and their babies would not be best served by treating pregnant women with drug or alcohol abuse problems as criminals.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of The British Pregnancy Advisory Service said: "Making one particular form of behaviour during pregnancy into a criminal offence would lay the ground for criminalising a wide range of other behaviours because they may too pose a risk to the health of the baby.

"When we consider that the taking of necessary medication, such as treatment for epilepsy or depression, or the refusal of a caesarean section could be seen to fall into the category of maternal behaviours that may damage the foetus, the trajectory of such an approach is deeply worrying.

"We should take very seriously any legal developments which call into question pregnant women's fundamental right to bodily autonomy and right to make their own decisions.

"Pregnant women deserve support and respect, not the prospect of criminal sanction for behaviour which would not be illegal for anyone else."

Current NHS guidance says women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether. But if they choose to drink it recommends they should not have more than one or two units once or twice a week.

The case continues.

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