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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


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

Anonynonny Mon 24-Feb-14 13:39:34

I can see several practical problems with such a law, quite apart from the philosophical starting point of a woman's body not being her own.

1. How would the law define heavy drinking and how would they prove that a woman had drunk that much? If she claimed she'd only drunk half that amount, how could anyone prove beyond reasonable doubt that she hadn't?

2. I presume there would be more secret drinking going on and women would be disincentivised from asking for help to stop drinking. Counter prodcutive to say the least.

3. Someone who strongly suspected that they would not be able to either drink secretly or drink less than the legal definition of "heavily" would be more likely to seek an abortion.

The law of unintended consequences would kick in quite quickly if the mostly male parliament legislated about how much women should drink in pregnancy.

Actually something else. The biggest threat to the health of a baby, is domestic violence. That's a much greater threat than drinking alcohol. Why don't we prioritise the biggest problems first?

TheGreatHunt Mon 24-Feb-14 13:52:52

Well when you're pregnant you are growing another person. Hard as it is to take, you have a responsibility to do the best for that person because they're dependent on you.

This isn't about people having the odd glass of wine. Its about people who get wasted deliberately while pregnant.

However, how many sane women do that?

I'm not sure a law is required here or is the right answer.

Devora Mon 24-Feb-14 14:25:14

I agree with your conclusion. I don't think we should criminalise women for what they do to their bodies while pregnant - the implications and repercussions of that are horrifying.

But I do take some issue with some of your reasoning, in particular the suggestion that this is about trying to be the 'perfect parent' and analogous to not eating organic food. Or implying that this is any way about women who had a few glasses too many before they realised they were pregnant.

My child was born addicted to drugs and went through a prolonged and painful withdrawal - alone, on morphine, uncomforted for several weeks by anyone other than passing nurses when they could find the time. She is also almost certainly affected by exposure to alcohol in utero - the effects of that will continue to emerge as she grows older, but will last a lifetime and can't be cured.

The cost is immense to these children, and also to the families and society that must look after them. None of us knows how much is too much (it's not that health professionals 'aren't prepared to give an accurate assessment' but that they don't know and controlled trials would be unethical) but I've certainly never met a child with FAS whose mum just did some social drinking early on. Have you?

I don't think it would be right to prosecute my child's birth mother for what she did. But i do think it is right that what she did be considered child abuse. Because it was.

ifyourehoppyandyouknowit Mon 24-Feb-14 15:50:44

How can you allow an unborn baby to be classed as the victim of a crime, while also maintaining women's bodily autonomy?

I just don't see how you could ever line them up.

I've not read everything here but I think the way forward is just to trust women with their own bodies, pregnancies, and babies - and through education not legislation.

creamteas Mon 24-Feb-14 16:44:45

The current case is basically local government (who pay for social care) trying to get more money from central government (criminal compensation).

In other words, profound rights to bodily autonomy for women are undermined by this battle of budgets.

That's interesting creamteas

22honey Mon 24-Feb-14 17:09:36

No to criminalisation of anything during pregnancy, though Ive noticed massive hypocrisy on Mumsnet with regards to drinking during pregnancy vs smoking and other things. Both things potentially harmful but with drinking particularly its not usually an addiction with most mums to be so I dont see how it can be hard to just stop. I havnt had a drink since I found out despite liking to party, this hasnt been hard at all yet quitting smoking has been extremely hard for me. IMO unless you are an alcoholic drinking anything during pregnancy is an unnecessary risk no one NEEDS to take, yes smoking is the same but that is an addiction the hardest one to break and women get lots of stick for being unable to quit yet non alcoholic pregnant drinkers don't?

So why are women who smoke even who cut down to practically nothing as I have done looked down upon and judged yet plenty of women post they still drink alcohol regularly and are told this is ok by other posters to help 'calm' the mum to be? Would a poster smoking cannabis through a vaporiser be treated the same way? No because its 'illegal' and not socially acceptable despite there being no studies showing it harms babies whatsoever, infact studies have shown it is beneficial and it is even prescribed for MS elsewhere yet due to the stigma women would still be lambasted. I find this very hypocritical tbh. I'd feel more comfortable smoking cannabis than drinking alcohol in pregnancy but choose to do neither because I'm not addicted. Sorry I just don't get it!

I could apply similar reasoning to allsorts of prescription drugs and other things such as long haul flying but I'll leave it there, my last word on it is the risk is entirely up to the mother but anyone taking any unnecessary risk during pregnancy cannot judge another mum to be who might be taking different risks.

StarlightMcKingsThree Mon 24-Feb-14 17:12:13

Women who drink to levels that are likely to harm their babies need help not a conviction after it has happened.

All others will sensibly consume all food and drink in moderation (though not necessarily optimally) well enough and that includes other harmful if in excess foods like brocolli.

StarlightMcKingsThree Mon 24-Feb-14 17:13:51

I drank during my 3 pregnancies because I searched and never found any EVIDENCE for not doing.

Aspartame on the other hand.....

Shootingatpigeons Mon 24-Feb-14 17:37:34

I had my children well over a decade ago when the advice to women was no more than 2 or 3 units a week and no more than 1 unit per day. There is still no convincing evidence that that level of drinking will cause any harm to an unborn child. You never got any derogatory comments or looks from others, barmen or otherwise, people were simply not aware of what the "latest research" was suggesting. Now it seems the media has empowered every person who thinks they occupy the moral high ground to make judgement on any women who even dares to drink a glass of wine, based on the publicising the results of research that suggests that it would be precautionary to not drink at all. There is absolutely no moral high ground that justifies passing judgement on a woman's decision to drink a glass of wine. It is their decision based on weighing up the evidence and medical advice and there is no convincing evidence that it will harm their child.

There is plenty of evidence that other things a women consumes or is exposed to can harm an unborn child, are those same people passing judgement on a woman who uses pesticides in the garden, treats a child's nits with chemical shampoo, eats peanuts, as mentioned by another poster drinks anything containing aspartame etc etc., even has a sneaky portion of soft cheese (or in France an entire cheese and pate board) Somehow alcohol brings out the puritans........

Excessive drinking at levels proven to harm an unborn child is not an issue for the law, it is an issue for social services, and appropriate medical support.

reprobatemum Mon 24-Feb-14 17:37:35

BROCCOLI HARMS? good lord, my other half practically force fed me broccoli in my first trimester!

StarlightMcKingsThree Mon 24-Feb-14 17:43:21

It doesn't harm in moderation. In fact in moderation it is beneficial.

StarlightMcKingsThree Mon 24-Feb-14 17:45:12

Do french give up cheese? Do Japanese give up raw fish?

Devora Mon 24-Feb-14 18:11:27

But we're not talking about 2-3 glasses, are we? We're talking about drinking at a level to cause FAS - which is way, way more. And at a point where i think it is fair to assume that the woman is in fact addicted.

22honey - I'm not having a pop, just a statement of fact: part of the difference in treatment is that there is a safe level of drinking in pregnancy. There is not a safe level of smoking.

Devora Mon 24-Feb-14 18:14:59

I really think there's two debates going on here: the first is whether women should be liable for causing serious damage to their unborn babies. The second is whether women are over-nannied/policed during pregnancy. Eating cheese in pregnancy really doesn't belong in the same discussion as crack babies, does it? Ok, you could argue that they're on the same continuum, but it's a flipping long continuum...

StarlightMcKingsThree Mon 24-Feb-14 18:16:35

Well then legislation should exist to adress the many and complex reasons for addiction way before conception.

SanctiMoanyArse Mon 24-Feb-14 18:21:06

I know a child with severe FAS (foetal alcohol syndrome) so can see it from that side (I know his adopted mother, was removed from birth mother).

But I think it's wrong to treat grown people like children. With ds1 I drank no alcohol at all, with ds4 I had a glass once or twice. People who are pregnant and drink to extremes tend to be flagged up anyway especially if they already have a child (I know full well via my old workload!), so there are mechanisms in place for that already. I'd far rather see better training for people already in place such as MW / support workers / HV to identify real issues, than legislation that criminalises women not doing anything actually proven to be harmful.

Devora Mon 24-Feb-14 18:21:26

What legislation would you like to see, Starlight?

Devora Mon 24-Feb-14 18:23:30

But I don't think there is any suggestion that women could be prosecuted for drinking at a safe level, is there? Wasn't the post about women being prosecuted for causing actual proven harm?

Onepactupac Mon 24-Feb-14 18:28:48

I think this is a largely fabricated dilemma, in real life nobody (say, a father) would waste their time bringing a case against a mother for drinking during her pregnancy with his child. The law is not capable of or able to make a sensible judgement (hence why there are no such laws in existence).

However, just musing on the hypothetical dilemma for a moment, this goes to the heart of the abortion debate: where do you draw the line between a woman and an unborn baby / foetus? Different jurisdictions draw the line in different places (up to 22 weeks, up to 16 weeks, at birth, never) and there can be no correct answer. Inevitably, the slow progress of science will decide the matter. Now that a child born up to 12 weeks before term can be kept alive and go on to lead a healthy life, the parameters of the debate are changing. And so it will be for any other acts the mother can take which might impact the baby (termination clearly being at one extreme of the spectrum).

Shootingatpigeons Mon 24-Feb-14 18:33:56

The article also highlights the growing social pressure initiated by the media on any pregnant woman drinking even one glass of wine in public. Yes it is a continuum but it is pretty clear that at the start of the continuum a woman decision to have a drink, or the odd bit soft cheese or whatever during pregnancy is no one's business but her own and a woman deciding to exceed the levels at which it is known she will be risking FAS needs help. Apart from anything else by the time the child is born with FAS and she is open to prosecution it is too late

Nerfmother Mon 24-Feb-14 18:34:33

Your point has been lost, for me, in the chick lit style of writing - the references to your super cool lifestyle beforehand are fine but let's not forget it's not a reality for most of us, so kind of missing how most pregnant women drink (if they do).
I am intensely offended, for some reason, by your suggestion that aspergers could have been caused by drinking - my son has aspergers and OCD and I think it's very harmful to start hinting at this when there is no evidence to show any kind of link.

Devora Mon 24-Feb-14 18:35:48

But Onepactupac, you have a defined clinically diagnosable condition (FAS) which can only be caused by the mother drinking excessively in pregnancy. And a society that increasingly leans to litigation. So I think it is highly likely that there will be pressure at some time towards a prosecution (instigated by the father, or the child, or the state). And then the floodgates could be opened, because growing numbers of children are being born who are irreversibly damaged.

I really hope it doesn't come to that.

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