MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 24-Feb-14 13:02:31

Guest post: If drinking in pregnancy becomes a crime, women's bodies will no longer be their own

A test case due to be heard at the Court of Appeal could criminalise a mother who drank heavily in pregnancy, and whose child was subsequently born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The case could set a precedent, and raises a number of issues relating to mothers' rights to autonomy over their own bodies, and when 'personhood' begins.

In this guest post, MN blogger Christina Franks shares her own experience of drinking while pregnant, and argues that criminalising those who do so to excess would be a futile and a dangerous step.

Do share your thoughts on the thread: did you drink during pregnancy? Is it time to change the law to protect unborn babies - or is women's autonomy over their own bodies more important?

Christina Franks

Raising Jonah

Posted on: Mon 24-Feb-14 13:02:31

(71 comments )

Lead photo

Drinking in pregnancy - where do we draw the line?

Unless you are one of those rare women who unwittingly go into labour thinking they’ve a touch of indigestion, most women know pretty early on in pregnancy that their body is no longer their own.

I knew the aliens had landed well before the second line on the test went pink; my boobs were so sore that by early January I knew that Christmas day shag, pickled in Prosecco and sherry, had indeed made a baby. But this was my second child. I knew the signs by then.

With my first it was different. I was busy juggling London life, study, and a wonderful relationship with a solvent man; careless enough to forget my pill, though, while working like a demon in the month up to my journalism finals.

It’s a tale as old as time, and as common as a cold. And even though a tiny part of me knew I could be pregnant, like many students I’d been drinking like a fish. There was that night I went to a gig with my sister, and ended up in a gay bar in Soho; the surprise party for Tom where we got everyone pole-dancing before the night was done. The night we stayed up 'til dawn doing Christ knows what with Tom's banking colleagues. And even though I racked my brain going back over the dates to pinpoint exactly when it might have been that I conceived, it does little to alleviate my guilt.

I was upfront with the doctor who confirmed my pregnancy. He tried to alleviate my fears, telling me his own his wife didn't realise she was pregnant 'til five months gone. Other mums agreed: "Don’t worry. We all did it"; "They’re not hooked up to your blood supply in the first month - they're in a separate bag."

Jonah may have been born a good weight, with no delay in his speech or language or other signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - but my son has Asperger’s syndrome, for which doctors can’t agree on one single cause. There’s no known link between AS and alcohol; but, as I search my beautiful son for the tell-tale inverted crescents at the corner of his eyes – visible markers of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – I can convince myself they are there. Regardless of the fact I can see the same inverted crescents on the eyes of my cousin's little boy; on a photograph of my great-great grandfather, who has the same stern gaze as Jonah.

One of problems is women today drink more than previous generations. I don’t know how many of our parents were out drinking Jagermeister on a Tuesday night - although many more may have casually smoked 20 Silk Cut a day. The damage we can do unwittingly is frightening – and no one seems prepared to give an accurate assessment of the risk moderate alcohol consumption in pregnancy may cause. Since I had my children, I’ve read newspaper headlines suggesting anything from one unit a day to no alcohol at all can be considered safe. Some even maintain alcohol in moderation could be beneficial. No one really knows - and the fact is, as my midwives said to me, most babies are conceived in a sea of alcohol. They wouldn’t get made otherwise.

The moment a women's right to choose how to conduct themselves while pregnant becomes controlled by law, then we have begun to lose ownership of our bodies – that has to be a dangerous thing, with all sorts of implications for a woman's right to choose.


A recent article by Emma Barnett in the Telegraph, on her increasing willingness to judge women who drink while pregnant, raises an issue which seems to be increasingly in the ether. Are the rights of the unborn child to a healthy start more important than the mother-to-be's right to drink? She cites the case of a barman who refused to serve alcohol to a pregnant woman, and believes people should feel more comfortable exercising their concern for the unborn child in this way. But is she, a woman yet to have children, right to judge women who drink in pregnancy at all?

Conversely, should the law go further to protect babies from their mother's choices? A test case which will shortly go before the Court of Appeal is attempting to extract damages from the mother of a child who suffers from Fetal Alchohol Syndrome - on the ground that the child has been the victim of a crime.

According to current figures there are approximately 7,000 cases of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome a year. And given modern drinking habits, that number may be rising. So is it time to replace guidelines for women consuming alcohol in pregnancy – currently no more than one or two units a week – with laws? Or would legislating against alcohol consumption in pregnancy create more problems than it would solve?

The moment a woman's right to choose how to conduct themselves while pregnant becomes controlled by law, we have begun to lose ownership of our bodies – and that has to be a dangerous thing. It has all sorts of implications for a woman's right to choose - the recent case of the Italian woman with mental health issues, whose baby was forcibly removed by caesarean, springs to mind.

Alongside the difficulties of policing alcohol consumption in pregnancy (would we legislate against women who have two drinks a week instead of one? Imprison those whose babies are born with foetal alcohol syndrome? What about those who don’t know they are pregnant, or aren’t showing yet - where do we draw the line?) we have to ask ourselves how punitive measures against the mothers whose choices (itself a spurious concept, in my book) damage their unborn child is going to be a positive step for anyone involved. Surely, if society is judged against how we treat our most vulnerable, the only way to make the best of a bad fist is a to be supportive of both mother and child?

And, if we start saying only fit, healthy, sober women are allowed to have babies, then where does it end? Should only solvent women be allowed to have children? Or only clever women? Middle-class women? Attractive women?

There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Until you have children of your own it’s very easy to have (literally) pre-conceived notions of how you will be as a mother, like Emma Barnett in the Telegraph. You imagine cultivating a stress-free pregnancy full of yoga classes and organic veggies - but until you have been there and lived it, you’re in La La land.

I don’t know many mums who don’t do the best they can for their kids– as yet unborn or already screaming to high heaven – but that 'best' will be different depending on their circumstances, outlook and priorities. And there’s no changing that without increasing social equality. What’s more, I don’t know where official class lines are drawn when it comes to social drinking - but wine o’clock is, in my experience, a yummy mummy stalwart.

And, even after all that guilt, when my second pregnancy was over, I heaved a sigh of relief and treated myself to a glass or two of Cloudy Bay, baby clamped to my nipple and resolutely ignore anyone who dared give me the mildest look of reproach. Why? Because, when you’ve been up three times a night for the best part of three years, you begin to realise that it isn’t what’s best for baby that’s best for anyone. It’s what’s best for you. And if that means relaxing with a small glass of wine, whatever stage of motherhood you may be at, then so be it.

By Christina Franks

Twitter: @Reprobatemum

JustGetOnWithIt Mon 24-Feb-14 18:39:12

There are nowhere near 7000 FAS cases a year. Department of Health figures for 2002-2008 were a total of 987 for the entire period. This is an issue dreamt up by anti-alcohol moral campaigners who are quite happy to lie and exaggerate in order to further their cause regardless of the consequences for women, pregnant or not, and for parents of children with disabilities. I also think it is pretty horrible for adoptive parents to be encouraged to talk of the birth mother in such disparaging terms - not good for your child and completely lacking in human sympathy for deeply troubled people.

Devora Mon 24-Feb-14 18:42:58

Shootingatpigeons, I agree that women who are heavily drinking in pregnancy need help. Sadly, they don't always want that help. Very often, they reject any help offered.

I do tend to agree with Nerfmother that they style of this blog is unhelpful to the debate. FAS is a really terrible condition, and it kind of gets trivialised by talk of pate and French cheese. I DO think how women get policed in everyday pregnancy is a legitimate issue for discussion, but perhaps not at the same time as talking about how to deal with the immense problem of babies being born damaged by drugs or alcohol in utero. And you always end up with women who have enjoyed a glass or two feeling guilt-tripped and demonised, and women like me - whose children have been hugely and permanently damaged - feeling that our children's problems have been minimised and glossed over in a rush to assert the right to party.

Shootingatpigeons Mon 24-Feb-14 18:53:33

Nerf I think the point was, though possibly not clearly made, that as mothers we are vulnerable to all this social pressure because, unless we have a problem with drink we are always anxious that we do what is necessary to have a healthy baby, and feel guilt if there is any possibility that we did something that damaged them. Inevitably with all the social pressure and media coverage if your child does have any neuro developmental difference it sets your mind wondering. It isn't rational. I am dyslexic, so are most of my family and obviously it was on the cards my DDs would be dyslexic and I understand it is a difference not a birth defect, and a strength in a lot of ways. However I can't deny that watching my DD cope with her dyslexia and dyspraxia that the thought crosses my mind that when five months pregnant, the point at which the brain is developing, I did enjoy an "indulgent" glass of Cremant on a couple of evenings of a holiday. It is complete irrational bollocks but it makes it all the worse that a few bullies with a prejudice against alcohol have set this whole media circus in train, emotionally blackmailing women into changing their lives to an unnecessary extent.

Onepactupac Mon 24-Feb-14 18:55:37

Devora you raise the question of the point and limits of the law. Sure, after a couple of succesful litigations there may be some preventative force to the law, but what if the defence is addiction (for eg, akin to a defence of insanity to murder)? Where would we go from there? (Don't forget any law would apply just as equally to drugs as to alcohol)

The law is not the answer to everything, and I don't believe it is the answer here either. All the ethical dilemmas we have around alcohol and drugs now will be complicated and multiplied many time when applied vicariously to a foetus/baby through its mother. There would be just no way to ensure miscarriages of justice don't happen frequently.

StarlightMcKingsThree Mon 24-Feb-14 18:58:13

Legislation protecting the social care budgets for early intervention in social care, not crisis management firefighting and criminalising vulnerable people.

Nerfmother Mon 24-Feb-14 19:00:45

Shooting , if that was the point it was totally lost to me. Thank you for explaining.
Unfortunately this blog reads too much like a stealth boast and the serious bits feel like a vehicle for the op to tell us about her previous coolness. Which is a shame, because I would happily talk about this stuff, and would welcome a discussion.

Shootingatpigeons Mon 24-Feb-14 19:27:01

Devora We are not disagreeing here. This article was about the dangers of policing women's bodies, the fact that the very serious issues around FAS have been hijacked by a patriarchal agenda that seeks to regulate what women do, how they behave etc. It shouldn't be that this issue gets covered in the same sort of rhetoric as criticising women for binge drinking (when not pregnant) having babies late etc. but it is. What it should be covered as, as is highlighted above, is as a social issue

ifyourehoppyandyouknowit Mon 24-Feb-14 19:35:22

Would be prosecute women who didn't take folic acid during pregnancy and then gave birth to children with related condii?

StarlightMcKingsThree Mon 24-Feb-14 19:37:05

I didn't take pregnancy vits. I tried. They made me nauseas and made my already extreme heartburn worse.

AskBasil Mon 24-Feb-14 19:52:51

I think one of the other problems with this, is that it's pretty much established that FAS also has a genetic component, doesn't it?

You can't give your baby FAS by drinking half a bottle of gin a day, as I seem to remember reading that Anne Robinson did when she was pregnant (or around that level), unless you also have a genetic pre-disposition which the excess of alcohol will trigger.

So would we only prosecute women who carried that particular gene as the others can happily do an Anne Robinson and drink as much as they like with no risk of FAS (although they may be risking other stuff.

Anyway obviously any law wouldn't be about protecting babies, it would be about policing women. If the government really wanted to protect babies, it would do something about a) the horrendous levels of undiagnosed alcoholism in general society and b) the horrendous levels of domestic violence, which as someone else has mentioned, is the biggest threat to fetuses and babies and c) the horrendous levels of poverty. Poverty is the single biggest factor as to outcomes for all babies.

justiceofthePeas Mon 24-Feb-14 20:57:11

What would be the point in prosecution after the fact? If they go down this route the logical conclusion would be to confine women who are deemed to be unfit wombs.

Perhaps a more relevant policy, with specific reference to this case would be to look at the way all addition al needs support is funded instead of only being able to claim compensation when there is blame or a criminal act.

Money should be allocated according to need not blame.

As for policing women's bodies it is reprehensible and immoral.

I can't quite believe a case like this is being brought in the UK. This is extremely disturbing. If you are a woman who would like to be considered as a full human being whose body is her own and you are not bothered by this case, or you think a ruling in favour of prosecuting mothers in these circumstances is a good idea, think a bit harder about the implications. Look at what is happening in the US and ask yourself if you really want the UK to go down a similar route.

Ascribing personhood to foetuses is ultimately incompatible with legal abortion.

If we care about children being born with FAS, and about children born with other preventable conditions, let's look for proper solutions which actually work and which don't strip anybody of their rights.

YoniMatopoeia Mon 24-Feb-14 22:53:58

It's the start of a slippery slope imo.

I read some opinion piece from the US where they were suggesting that women of child-bearing age should not be served alcohol (can't find it now), you know, just in case they were pregnant.

KatnipEvergreen Tue 25-Feb-14 16:48:06

Also women with drug addictions have been sent to prison for harming the foetus in the US. Not for the drug use, per se, but for the harm caused to the foetus. I don't think locking someone up in this way helps anyone and I don't want us to go down this slippery slope to women losing autonomy over their bodies. Smoking is far more directly harmful than drinking moderately and I wouldn't suggest making this illegal while pregnant either.

dixiedoodle Tue 25-Feb-14 17:18:27

.

LurcioLovesFrankie Tue 25-Feb-14 17:21:55

It's one of those situations where there is no scope for compromise. We as a society have to decide which is more important - foetuses (potential, as yet unborn), or women (already here, already given personhood). There is no middle ground which can allow rights to both.

And for me the prospect of having rights to bodily autonomy taken away from approximately 50% of already born human beings to defend the imaginary rights of foetuses is so horrific I come down firmly on the side of allowing pregnant women to do what they choose to. I do this knowing that there will be a tiny minority who make very bad choices and damage their foetuses, but I cannot see how any legislation could be framed which would protect those foetuses without taking rights away from all women as a result.

I am in awe of those of you bringing up children with FAS, and very sad for those children, but there is no way to legislate to prevent damage to those children without damaging women's rights so irrevocably that it would create the sort of society I would not wish to live in.

Piscivorus Tue 25-Feb-14 21:06:33

I am taking here about levels of use that would harm a foetus, not eating cheese, etc.

I don't think the argument that a woman's body is her own is valid during pregnancy because another human being is cohabiting that body and is totally reliant upon her. I find it shocking that some women don't show care and respect for the child they are carrying. Once the child is born everybody would be outraged if it was fed alcohol to the point that its health was harmed and I think that outrage should be the same before birth.

I was talking to a nurse recently who had worked with children born addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. Her view was that if the general public (and that includes most of us) were to see the suffering these children go through then we would have very different opinions about a woman's right to abuse these substances in pregnancy

ifyourehoppyandyouknowit Tue 25-Feb-14 21:22:20

But women have the right to abort that life, and if you support women's rights to bodily autonomy, you don't support restricting their lives and control of their bodies because of the rights of a hypothetical person.

Plus there is no evidence to show that how you much alcohol (if any) affects the fetus. Lots of women drink without knowing they are pregnant. How do you legislate for thate? Please piss on this stick before I pour your gin and tonic, ma'am?

ifyourehoppyandyouknowit Tue 25-Feb-14 21:23:30

The key thing is that while the fetus is inside the mother, it is not born. Ascribing it personhood is a slippery slope to go down.

justiceofthePeas Tue 25-Feb-14 21:37:52

piscivorus eating the wrong cheese when pregnant could do serious harm to a foetus (that is why they advise against it).

AskBasil Tue 25-Feb-14 21:39:03

Hopalong that's exactly the solution proposed in some states in the US. The discussion has already moved to the suggestion that all women of childbearing age should not drink just in case they are pregnant and don't know it yet.

That's how far the Overton window has moved. Women need to understand that the urge to control us, is still very very strong and if we cede one inch on our personhood, then we don't know where that road will lead.

When women have half the power, money and control of resources in the world then maybe we can start discussing reducing their status as human (though I personally wouldn't). While we're still the also-ran humans, it is sheer folly to give up one bit of our human status because that will lead to us giving up far more than we thought we would.

LurcioLovesFrankie Tue 25-Feb-14 22:21:01

Well said, Basil - it's very scary the way the debate is going in the States.

It's also important to remember that the recent case of the woman with impaired mental faculties given a C section will have been done (under English law) for her benefit, not the child's. As I understand it, she needed the surgery, was mentally incompetent to consent, so a court order had to be made instead. It was not done (contrary to what the tabloid press would have you believe) so that social workers could snatch the baby. Under English law, the foetus had no rights - only the risk to the life of the mother, coupled with her mental incapacity, could provide reason for the court order.

LurcioLovesFrankie Tue 25-Feb-14 22:26:44

"Her view was that if the general public (and that includes most of us) were to see the suffering these children go through then we would have very different opinions about a woman's right to abuse these substances in pregnancy"

I have read about FAS and the effects of drug abuse in utero. I know that the effects are horrific. But I have also read about women being denied life-saving treatment (the recent case in Ireland where a woman was denied an abortion despite miscarriage being inevitable, and died of massive systemic infection as a direct result, cases in Nicaragua where women have died from ectopic pregnancies because of the restrictions on abortion). I still come down on the side of the rights of human beings who already exist, rather than the rights of foetuses who are not yet, but which might eventually become human beings.

And I say that as someone who carried a very much wanted pregnancy to term, and was totally paranoid about avoiding anything that might have harmed that pregnancy. But the key point is that I, the woman in question, wanted that pregnancy, and I, the adult woman, the person, chose voluntarily to make sacrifices. It was not forced on me by society, and any society which would force those choice and sacrifices on me would, in my opinion, be a totalitarian society.

I'm sorry to say we appear to have been dragged into yet another "downer" conversation with Society suggesting, yet again, that women are incapable of making a sensible decision when they're pregnant. Should we all be back in crinolines, obeying our husbands and fathers? What Society cannot seem to get its head round is that the vast majority of women do care about their unborn children and are perfectly capable of making sensible judgments on what's right for them..... as an individual. If that means abstaining from alcohol, so be it. Equally that might mean drinking in moderation. You will always get the small percentage who can't make sensible choices but as one of the comments above rightly says, they need help not criminal sanctions.
My biggest gripe is that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be dragged into these debates but should send the answer back to Society that we, as women, are perfectly capable and have every right to make individual choices about our bodies, pregnancy, birth, childcare and all the other areas of life we seem to spend our time being barracked about by well meaning do-gooders, random medical surveys and over excited media sources.

RandomInternetStranger Wed 26-Feb-14 02:06:35

Message deleted by MNHQ for the use of disabilist language. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.

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