Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD): a disorder that we prefer not to talk about and when we do, we speak in absolutes with no attempt to understand why FASD exists.
My nephew has foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD): a disability he developed in the womb. Charles* has multiple cognitive and physical disabilities due to exposure to alcohol during pregnancy. I don't normally write about Charles' diagnosis mostly because I find the judgemental responses infuriating. Almost everyone responds with something about "one of those families" as if alcoholism was only prevalent in poor families living in sink hole estates a la Shameless.
I wouldn't have written about Charles here had it not been for the reaction I have seen on social media to the Telegraph's "Drinking alcohol during pregnancy could be ruled a crime". As a radical feminist, I believe no one has the right to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. I support abortion up to 40 weeks because I believe women know what is best for them and that no woman has a late-term abortion for kicks. I believe any attempts to curtail women's bodily autonomy - abortion, breastfeeding, tattoos, sexuality, medication - are based in misogyny. It is nothing more than the continuing perpetuation of male domination and oppression of women.
Yet, my nephew has a disability caused by his birth mother's consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Every day I wish his life could be easier for him: reading, playing and understanding his emotions. He struggles as a consequence of his mother's illness. I find it hard to separate my politics from my love in this situation. I worry when I see women drinking alcohol during pregnancy. I instinctively want to tell them to stop. I know what the risks are for FASD. I've read the research and I know. But, knowing doesn't stop the worry.
What I do know is how to prevent further children from being born with FASD. And, it isn't criminalising women whose alcohol misuse results in their child being born with FASD.
Charles' birth mother's alcoholism was a direct result of a lifetime of trauma caused by male violence. If we want to prevent further children from being born with FASD, we need to eradicate male violence. We need to end child sexual abuse. We need to end physical and emotional abuse of children. We need to start believing children who disclose abuse.
I know Charles' mother's personal history because it was an open adoption. We have constant contact with Charles' extended birth family. I know why Charles was placed for adoption and why my sister was chosen to be his second mother. I also know this wasn't a real "choice" for his birth mother.
This is why we also need the following:
- a fit-for-purpose child welfare system which is child centered.
- real social programs supporting parents
- alcohol/ drug rehabilitation programs which care for women who are pregnant or with small children that doesn't involve them losing custody of their children
- adequate education programs within schools to help children with FASD
- we need a criminal justice system which is victim-centered
- we need a criminal justice system which recognizes that the majority of women who are incarcerated are there because of male violence and/or substance misuse
- a real healthcare system supporting women through pregnancy and whilst raising their children
If we want to help prevent more children from being born with FASD and help support women to raise their children to the best of their ability, then we need start talking honestly about the reality of FASD, trauma, and male violence and stop pretending FASD is only a problem for some other people over there. Accurate diagnosis can help children. Prevention is even better.
We are causing actual harm to women and their children by refusing to acknowledge the reality of trauma due to male violence. This harm is compounded when we ignore the evidence of women's substance misuse and the criminalisation of traumatised women. FASD does not exist outside of our culture; it is a direct result of the abuse of women and children and the shaming of women who are victims.
As a radical feminist, I believe that women's bodily autonomy is sacrosanct. As an aunt to a beautiful nephew with FASD, I worry. And, I worry because cuts to health, social services, education and legal aid will increase the number of women and children trapped in violent homes. I worry because we are consistently refusing to contextualise FASD within the spectrum of male violence against women and children.
Right now, we are failing everyone: we are failing mothers and we are failing children. And, we all deserve better.
*Not his real name