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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 05-Nov-14 16:25:50

Guest post: Foetal Alcohol Syndrome - 'my nephew deserves better than the criminalisation of his mother'

As the Court of Appeal deliberates on a landmark case, Louise Pennington argues that criminalising mothers for drinking when pregnant is just another way of controlling women's bodies - and says we should be focusing on prevention, not punishment

Louise Pennington

My Elegant Gathering of White Snows

Posted on: Wed 05-Nov-14 16:25:50


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'Criminalising women is not just nonsensical - it's misogynistic'

Right now, the Court of Appeal is deciding whether or not a council in the North-West of England can hold the mother of a six-year-old girl born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome criminally liable under the Offences against Persons Act of 1861.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term for a number of diagnoses that result from prenatal exposure to alcohol. This exposure can cause problems with memory, attention, speech and language and behaviour, a weakened immune system, and damage to the liver, kidneys and heart. The long-term consequences include addiction, chronic unemployment, poverty, depression, suicide, and the criminalisation of the child themselves.

It is a horrible condition. I know, because my nephew has FASD. I have seen him struggle with his physical and emotional health. He finds everyday activities difficult, and his behaviour is very challenging. It is heartbreaking, watching him trying to navigate life with intellectual and physical impairments that could have been prevented. He finds school difficult because he cannot cope with unstructured learning, such as break time. He requires a very strict routine with clear instructions and finds choices difficult. He also has physical disabilities and needs a very strict diet – another control on his life that he does not fully understand.

As an aunt, I don't want any woman to drink alcohol whilst pregnant because I worry about the consequences for their children. As a feminist, I am utterly opposed to the criminalisation of women's bodies and any attempts to limit women's reproductive freedom.

Criminalising mothers who give birth to babies with FASD would do nothing to support women, and would make accessing services even more difficult. How many women would inform their midwife of their alcohol consumption if they believe they'll end up in prison? Even if women were to approach their midwife or doctor, there aren't enough programs in place to help them. How many beds are there in rehab facilities that are appropriate for women with substance misuse issues? How many are there that cater for women with other children? I refuse to believe that criminalisation would be followed by investment in mental health services. Already, a vast number of women in prison are there as a consequence of trauma, and criminalising pregnancy would increase that number.

As an aunt, I don't want any woman to drink alcohol whilst pregnant because I worry about the consequences for their children. As a feminist, I am utterly opposed to the criminalisation of women's bodies and any attempts to limit women's reproductive freedom.

The most frustrating thing is that there are so many other things we could do. Research has shown us how to minimise the effects of FASD. For example, we know that access to a healthy diet has a positive impact, which is why poverty remains a major risk factor. This isn't because women living in poverty are more likely to misuse alcohol – it's because a healthy diet can minimise the effects of alcohol on a developing foetus.

We know how to prevent FASD. It requires a properly funded NHS to provide support for women with substance misuse issues. Access to a midwife and GP who understand addiction and its causes is the most important prevention method. We can't see alcoholism in isolation. Amongst women, it is frequently linked to trauma following male violence – and we need a social care network that understands the reality and consequences of this.

This is why criminalising women is not just nonsensical - it's misogynistic.

Despite the fact that our economy would be destroyed if women withdrew all their labour, society still believes that women have less economic value than men. The control of women's reproduction – from access to birth control to abortion, from prenatal care to maternity leave – is about controlling women's labour. Preventing the "bad" women – the drinkers, the drug takers – from giving birth means that they are free to do low-paying jobs, rather than depending on the welfare state. Of course, criminalising them is much easier than fixing the root of the problem by providing better health and social care, and it suits those who should be stepping up to the plate: the local council, which is refusing to take responsibility for its failure to support a vulnerable woman appropriately during her pregnancy, and our society, which is refusing to take responsibility for the harm caused by misogyny and violence against women.

The only effective way to tackle FASD is to create a culture in which women have equal value to men, where male violence is eradicated, and in which women have access to free healthcare without judgment.

I don't want any child to suffer the way my nephew suffers. I also don't want to see women imprisoned for substance misuse. If we genuinely cared about women with substance misuse issues and children born with FASD, we'd be standing on the barricades demanding better investment in social care, the NHS and education - that's where the support and intervention for pregnant women should be. They won't get this support if they're forced into the criminal justice system.

My nephew deserves better than the criminalisation of his mother. And his mother deserves better too.

By Louise Pennington

Twitter: @LeStewpot

Stealthpolarbear Wed 05-Nov-14 17:38:57


RabidZombie Wed 05-Nov-14 17:42:00

Absolutely agree with this.

funchum8am Wed 05-Nov-14 17:45:22

Excellent points. Fully agree.

themightyfandango Wed 05-Nov-14 18:10:00

Excellent post.

OddFodd Wed 05-Nov-14 18:18:47

Fantastic post

5madthings Wed 05-Nov-14 18:19:44

Absolutely agree.

Rather different views on mnet Fb page, it's getting a bit ranty!

stumpweasel Wed 05-Nov-14 18:29:54

Totally agree. It's just another way to criminalise those who likely already have problems. We need to address poverty, diet and a host of other issues. Prison and a criminal record are not the solution.

sanfairyanne Wed 05-Nov-14 18:39:07

more than that, it is a step towards 'foetus rights' and away from women's rights to bodily self determination.

coalscuttle Wed 05-Nov-14 18:47:20

Yes yes yes

wanttosinglikemarycoughlan Wed 05-Nov-14 18:49:47

There is little or no support for children with FASD
My understanding of this case is that it is an attempt to secure compensation so the child can be cared for properly
I would like so see a no fault compensation so the children can get financial support without the need to criminalise the mother in order to secure the support
My DD's birth mother has had 3 more children all with FAS. I do know she has been offered support to quit drugs. She did have a good career
I would like to see moves to support addicts but also to discourage further pregnancies. It is just not fair on the children

OddFodd Wed 05-Nov-14 18:53:09

I'm sure most of us with children who were born with disabilities would like some no fault compensation for the additional costs and difficulties in life our children have. Where do I sign up?

wanttosinglikemarycoughlan Wed 05-Nov-14 18:57:35

Well my bs has ASD and dd FASD and there is more knowledge, support, professional input for ds
It was easier to get DLA and access the family fund for him
Not for dd because nobody understands FASD
Also FASD was preventable and if harm occurred after birth there would be compensation
I don't actually think it is helpful to be competitive with disorders

Stylecraft Wed 05-Nov-14 19:27:23

Fantastic post.

Viviennemary Wed 05-Nov-14 19:28:24

I did see a couple of news items on this. I think it would be wrong to make it a crime and then in the second breath say oh but nobody will be prosecuted. We're only making it a crime for the compensation. All children born with disabilities should have help and financial support.

EskiDecaff Wed 05-Nov-14 19:37:39

I agree. Also agree that anyone with a disability should receive proper appropriate support be it financial or otherwise.

Tiptoeshoes Wed 05-Nov-14 19:45:28

Very well written post with personal viewpoints well explained. I totally agree.

lougle Wed 05-Nov-14 20:20:34

I don't agree. I don't think criminalisation is the best way of tackling it, but I don't think it should be accepted that a woman in the throes of alcohol addiction can give birth to several children with FASD.

If a drug addicted parent leaves methadone in reach of a child and they are brain damaged, they may be held responsible for that brain damage in law. Why is it different if the baby is inside the parent at the time?

Many of you would day because the baby only has a right to life once it is able to be independently born. Some may say it goes further and that until the baby is born it has no right to life.

I disagree.I don't accept that a desire to end this is misogynistic. It just happens that, currently, women are the only people who can carry a baby to term and give birth.

Devora Wed 05-Nov-14 20:23:45

I completely agree with this. But, as the mother of a child born addicted and with suspected FASD, can I add my voice to those pointing out how little specialist help is available in this area. So often these threads end up minimising the impact of heavy drinking in pregnancy.

FreeWee Wed 05-Nov-14 20:36:48

I'm still on the fence with this as I can see both sides. This will raise awareness of FAS and that has to be a good thing. Those who say it's selfish to drink while pregnant misunderstand the psychology of addiction. A big part of me says criminalising will prevent people from asking for help, help that isn't particularly readily available at the moment. Another part says it's child abuse & there should be consequences for actions. Same with smoking and drugs whilst pregnant. But again that ignores the psychology of addiction! Glad I don't write the laws.

lougle Wed 05-Nov-14 20:49:32

I'm not talking about selfishness. I am willing to say that if you know you're ill and that illness has harmed a child you gave birth to, it isn't right that you should be able to do the same thing the next time without holding some responsibility for it.

ItsNotUnusualToBe Wed 05-Nov-14 21:00:28

Well said.

KnackeredMuchly Wed 05-Nov-14 21:20:27

I agree with you lougle.

OddFodd Wed 05-Nov-14 21:26:01

I agree with you wantstosing, but as your post so clearly demonstrates, there is a hierarchy when it comes to disability support.

I agree with Louise - the way to tackle this is better education and support for women. It's never going to be a perfect solution but it's better than the erosion of women's rights over their bodies during pregnancy that this proposed revision to the law would lead to.

scousadelic Wed 05-Nov-14 22:03:34

Absolutely lougle I agree this is not misogynistic as only women can bear children

It is all very well to say we should offer education and support but, while that might help some, there are some people who just do not take opportunities offered to them. As they say, you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink. I suspect there will be a number of women who will behave irresponsibly, with terrible consequences for their babies, unless we, as a society, takes some form of punitive action

We should not allow our compassion to enable a small number of women to be irresponsible and harm these poor children.

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