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

confuddledDOTcom Thu 06-Mar-14 00:05:25

people don't drink just because they're stressed, they drink because it's a choice. In my kitchen I have carling, red wine, amaretto, coke, oj, coconut & pineapple juice... Right now my choice is coke but Monday I really wanted a carling, not because I was stressed, I like it and wanted some. When I'm pregnant I make the same choices. I'm not stressed but fancy that at that moment. I'm not a big drinker, if I want to make that choice it's up to me. No one owns my womb.

I stand by my previous statement that a woman drinking to that level has other problems and needs help not a conviction.

Chunderella Tue 04-Mar-14 20:35:13

That is not the only context in which you used the term. Its usage in your post at 22.44 yesterday was extremely objectionable.

Devora Tue 04-Mar-14 20:24:07

I'm going to say it one last time, very very clearly: I did NOT refer to women's reproductive freedom as the right to party; I DID say it was too important to be portrayed as simply the right to party.

Chunderella Tue 04-Mar-14 19:44:25

Well, if we're going to get angry...

Personally devora I found your terminology disgusting. You did trivialise the issue when you refer to it as the right to party, and if you've worked in abortion provision (me too) you should know better. The only reason I didn't give you both barrels about your choise of phrase initially was is because of your experience of parenting a child with FAS. Dismissing women's legitimate concerns about the encroachment on our bodily autonomy during pregnancy as 'being about them enjoying a few glasses of bubbly during early pregnancy' shows a total lack of understanding. Nor is it for you to decide what the real nub of the issue is. It isn't that I didn't understand your point, it's just that it isn't a good one.

Incidentally, where did you find the information that told you the women posting on this thread are not struggling with addiction, that their children are healthy and have been able to enjoy a great deal of reproductive autonomy? Because I can't see it, and you have no right whatsoever to assume.

Devora Tue 04-Mar-14 19:25:19

Ah, now I'm not agreeing with you Chunderella. Now I'm feeling patronised.

I have said repeatedly throughout this thread that I think sacrificing women's reproductive rights is too high a price to pay and I am dead against any criminalisation of drinking during pregnancy. I have been a pro-choice activist for 30 years, and have worked in abortion clinics. I am also the mother of a child damaged by alcohol and drugs in utero.

Please don't fucking lecture me that I have to choose which side I'm on, or accuse me of trivialising the issues. My whole point - which seems to have been lost on you, despite me explaining it throughout the thread - is that it is, in my view, trivialising the issue to have these threads dominated by women who are not struggling with addiction, whose children are healthy, who do not have social services involvement in their lives, and who have been able to enjoy a great deal of reproductive autonomy, and who think that this is all about them enjoying a few glasses of bubbly early on in pregnancy. The real nub of the issue - including but not limited to the suffering of children born with FAS - never seems worthy of much beyond acknolwedgement.

It's no part of my feminism to 'ignore the interests' of hurt and hurting children. I do not see their interests as being subordinate to mine. And don't tell me that you sympathise: you quite clearly don't and have no interest in developing any understanding whatsoever.

Chunderella Tue 04-Mar-14 18:24:36

There is no research that I'm aware of showing that 1-2 units a week is anything other than safe midwife. If you know of any, please do post it, but my understanding is that there is none. Also, the change in advice was not evidence based- quite the opposite. It was thought that women were too stupid or feckless to understand exactly what 1-2 units a week meant, and that it would be best simply to recommend no alcohol at all because of this despite the fact that this didn't reflect the outcome of the research.

midwifeandmum Tue 04-Mar-14 18:13:02

Can be safe but no research to say it is. Thats why regulations and advice changed in 2005 to say NO drinking is advised in pregnancy. Whereas it used to be advised 1-2 units

Chunderella Tue 04-Mar-14 17:41:50

All the research on 1-2 units of alcohol weekly and no more has shown it's safe, though.

midwifeandmum Tue 04-Mar-14 17:38:36

Omg how is there NO evidence linking alcohol with abnormalities in children exposed to alcohol.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy..... hence the name.

There is no known proof of how many units consumed by mother to cause FAS, it could be very few to alot of units.

Ive seen a mother 5 years ago DRUNK whilst in labour. She had been secretly drinking at home when she prematurely went into labour.

I dont know the outcome as I dont liase with health visitors etc. But I do know that its a very dangerous game to mess around with drink and drugs whilst pregnant. The placenta feeds baby everything we ate/drink.

so please if your really stressed out and need that smoke/drink. think how stressful it could be in future years with a child unable to do alot of what kids their age can do. Get help for an addiction.

Chunderella Tue 04-Mar-14 11:42:29

Ok, well I think the use of the term 'right to party' rather trivialises the importance of the woman's right to do as she wishes with her body during pregnancy. Ultimately, we inevitably have to ignore the interests of one group or the other and there's not really any way round that. It isn't even lip service: its less than that. You have to choose one group whose rights are more important, and the interests of the other are then subordinate. I sympathise, but I don't think either your daughter or mine would benefit from their rights over their bodies during pregnancy being further limited either.

Devora Mon 03-Mar-14 22:44:43

Chunderella, I was criticising the way these threads collapse the continuum and only pay lip service to the situation of the unborn child. Though I agree that women should not be criminalised for what they do to their bodies during pregnancy, children like mine seem to be invisible on these threads - their interests ignored in favour of the 'right to party'.

And I agree with your post smile

Chunderella Mon 03-Mar-14 21:30:55

22honey the reason why women are supported in drinking during pregnancy and not in smoking is because any smoking at all is harmful, whereas all the evidence says 1-2 units a week is fine. So you aren't comparing like with like. I've never seen anyone who drinks more than that being told it's ok. That's not to say there aren't some bizarre double standards on this issue around here. There was a recent discussion where one pregnant woman berated others for drinking during pregnancy, whilst wrongly asserting that her own decision to eat pate was so much safer. Personally I support the right of a pregnant woman to indulge in all or none of these, to whatever extent she wishes. And am strongly opposed to shaming pregnant smokers, both on principle because a woman's body is her own, and in practice because that approach doesn't work anyway. That doesn't mean it's double standards to point out that drinking moderately in pregnancy has been proven to be safe and smoking the opposite.

Devora did you mean to write asserting the right to party, or should it have read 'parity' as in parity with the foetus?

janebblogger Fri 28-Feb-14 20:22:19

Oops I mean to say 'I did not drink' and no I haven't been 'drinking'

janebblogger Fri 28-Feb-14 20:19:53

I did not drinking during my three pregnancies. Well, as soon as I got the double blue line I was saintly. It just felt wrong with that little person growing inside me. Even when people were quite insistent I have a little sip I easily refused. There is no clear research stating how much is too much, so I'd advise woman to abstain. Perhaps they could pass a law that partners should too?

Devora Thu 27-Feb-14 13:52:31

It largely is, creamteas; I'm just making the point that although all are agreed that this shouldn't be criminalised, that doesn't mean that there aren't (or shouldn't be) legal ramifications.

Of course women in that situation should be offered help. and where they are, they should be offered more and better help. But everyone who has worked with addictions knows that many don't want that help, or can't make it even with that help. So it can't be suggested as a straightforward alternative. When women addicted to drugs or alcohol give birth, it is still not an automatic presumption that they won't be able to care effectively for their child. But it will absolutely be used as part of the evidence that they can't.

I'm labouring this a bit because sometimes on these threads you get a bit of romanticism (not saying that is true of anyone on this thread particularly), a suggestion that children wouldn't need to be taken into care if only their mothers were offered help. When you have seen women who have been on a rollercoaster of intervention and support for YEARS, who have had 6, 8, 10 children born with brain damage, you realise what a high price is paid for our (justified) refusal to countenance forced sterilisation or criminalisation.

confuddledDOTcom Thu 27-Feb-14 10:25:37

A woman who is drinking to those extremes needs help and I'd hope that would be obvious to those around her.

StarlightMcKingsThree Thu 27-Feb-14 09:26:35

I think strong education and support needs to be given to women who are addicts in order to prevent pregnancies whilst they are in that condition and long term contraception made easy and encouraged, and then full support to address the addiction should they want to have children (or in any case).

creamteas Thu 27-Feb-14 09:07:35

women who abuse their children by causing them to have FAS may expect to attract the attention of social services

Given that FAS only ever occurs in women who are chronic alcoholics, it would be astonishing if this wasn't already happening.

Devora Wed 26-Feb-14 23:03:20

I agree with everyone on here, with the caveat that while I agree drinking in pregnancy should not be criminalised, women who abuse their children by causing them to have FAS may expect to attract the attention of social services.

confuddledDOTcom Wed 26-Feb-14 19:10:12

I have never not drunk in pregnancy, I'm not an excessive drinker naturally and can go months without and only have a glass or two when I do. I think women need to choose for themselves, when I drink in pregnancy it's almost in recognition of that fact.

I do not think we can go down the road that America is and once you get on that road it's a difficult one to get off.

RandomInternetStranger Wed 26-Feb-14 17:52:53

Can someone explain what "disabilist" language I used to have my post removed? As far as I remember I may have said moron or that we need a cull of stupid people but I don't see stupidity as a disability, I see it as a choice. Is stupidity now a disability?? hmm

Yet again a couple of idiot men trying to balls things up for women.

Whoever proposed this should be sacked. And whoever gave it airtime too.

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.

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.

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.

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