Last night, Channel 4 News aired a short film I've spent the last five months putting together about Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, or FASD. This is a range of lifelong disabilities that can occur when a mother drinks while their child is in the womb.
The film explores the demands of a report out today backed by 70 British medical professionals and charity the FASD Trust stating women should be told there is no safe level of alcohol that can be drunk while pregnant, and setting out a more vigorous approach to diagnosing the estimated 8000 babies born with the condition each year, including a demand for midwives to take a bigger role in identifying babies at risk.
We spent time with a number of young people with FASD and their parents, who agreed to share their story in a bid to make people aware of the dangers of drinking while pregnant.
"I don't grow very much, I'm not very strong, I can't control what I say", said Stanley, aged eight, who was expelled from his primary school after just two weeks and got diagnosed with FASD last year. His mother Samantha was the only birth mother brave enough to talk openly about drinking while pregnant, and describe what life was like knowing you had caused your child entirely preventable and yet permanent brain damage. Eight years dry, Sam was fighting for the support her son needed to life as independent life as possible.
Many people I met from the FASD community felt the UK lagged behind other countries like the United States, Canada and even, perhaps surprisingly France, who all advise against drinking while pregnant and put warning labels on bottles. We have a voluntary code for labelling bottles, but the suspicion was that as a nation of drinkers, the idea of telling anyone, even a pregnant woman, not to drink at all, was beyond our comprehension.
Frankly, it was until relatively recently, beyond mine. Back in August, shortly before I started working on this film, I'd attended a hen weekend in Berlin. With the party was a friend around six months pregnant. When she'd nursed the odd small glass of wine, we'd cheered, it was proof that despite being up the duff, she still knew how to have fun.
It is hugely unlikely that someone like my friend, staying well within the government set guidelines of one-two units once or twice a week would do any harm to their unborn child. But what is true is that we're all drinking more booze, and don't agree on what 'moderation' is, or at least that was the upshot of the discussion I recorded with a group of regular mums, who felt they could have had more guidance from their GPs about what FASD was, and made an educated decision from that information.
Some of the most poignant footage we shot was with two brothers, Andy and Eddie, whose story illuminated claims that FASD was a "ticking time bomb" in the care system. Their foster parents, who had taken them in over ten years ago, were told their developmental problems were due to the severe neglect they'd experienced. With enough love and support, they were assured, the boys would overcome their difficulties within five years. Only nothing did change, and after going as far as requesting the birth mother's medical records through the Freedom of Information Act, they discovered their boys' mum had been drinking heavily throughout pregnancy and gained a diagnosis of FASD.
There are potentially thousands of young people like Andy and Eddie coming through the care system each year. Andy, 21, lives round the corner from his foster parents, and can't even have a cooker in his flat, let alone hold down a job. Eddie, 18, lives in a centre that uses horse therapy to help young people with learning disabilities live more independently, but foster mum Sharon is still worried he won't cope in the outside world. She and husband Paul have signed up for a lifetime supporting five children fostered overall with FASD.
"It's nine months", said the UK's leading clinician into FASD, Dr Raja Mukherjee, when we challenged him on whether it's really necessary to warn all women not to drink while pregnant, adding to the list of dos and don'ts women are asked to obey while pregnant. "If you drink at low level or have the occasional drink you are unlikely to cause harm, but I can't sit here and say I can guarantee that. I can if you don't drink at all." Watch the report and see if you agree.
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