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Drinking while pregnant: a crime of violence?

A woman who drank heavily while pregnant has been accused of a ‘crime of violence’. Her child, who is in foster care, has developed foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) as a result of the woman involved drinking 8 cans of strong lager and half a bottle of vodka a day. If the court rules that the woman has indeed committed a ‘crime of violence’, the judgement would effectively make drinking while pregnant illegal. It is desperately sad that the child has developed FAS; but does that mean that his mother should be criminalised for her behaviour? If this woman was drinking so heavily on a daily basis, she clearly had an addiction to alcohol. The accepted attitude towards people who are addicts is that they are ill, and require treatment and support from professionals and their families. The media has been quick to highlight how much this woman was drinking, and how badly her child was affected as a result. However, they have not mentioned that she was clearly very ill, and living in circumstances in which alcohol appeared to be her only ally. The reports do not detail how much family support she was getting, or whether or not she was living with an ill or abusive partner. It is all too easy to shake our heads in disgust while knowing nothing about this woman, her addiction, or her circumstances.

According to the NHS, ‘Children with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome have distinct facial features including: small and narrow eyes, a small head, a smooth area between the nose and the lips and a thin upper lip. They also show the following symptoms:

– Hearing and ear problems
– Mouth, teeth and facial problems
– Weak immune system
– Epilepsy
– Liver damage
– Kidney and heart defects
– Cerebral palsy and other muscular problems
– Height and weight issues
– Hormonal disorders

There is no doubt, therefore, that FAS is a devastating illness that dramatically affects the quality and length of life of those affected. Children born with FAS are unlikely to have the same opportunities, experiences and fulfilment from life that everyone should be entitled to by right of birth. No one wishes this for any child, not even women who are drinking heavily while pregnant. These women are ill, and need help and support, not condemnation and criminalisation. Who is it going to benefit if they are branded criminals?

The Department of Health advises that women do not drink at all during pregnancy. If they do, they should drink no more than the equivalent of one to two small glasses of wine a week. Drinkaware is much more ambiguous on the dangers:

‘We don’t know how much alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy. It depends on various factors such as how fast a mum to be absorbs alcohol, her physical health, diet and what medication she is on’.
Many of us believe that having an occasional glass of wine while expecting is acceptable and doesn’t do any harm. A woman who is pregnant is entitled to make the choice to terminate her pregnancy; why should she not have the same freedom of choice when it comes to her consumption of alcohol, and the food she eats? The NHS advises that we should limit caffeine consumption and avoid pates and certain kinds of cheeses. If we are going to start criminalising women for their alcohol consumption during pregnancy, why not for the consumption of certain foods, or for smoking? Where will it end? Does a pregnant woman become public property, open to the judgement of all, and at risk of being criminalised for any actions deemed to be unacceptable?

The Department of Health recommends that all pregnant women are vaccinated against the flu, due to the fact that they are more likely to develop complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia. If a woman decides against this vaccination, as she has the right to do, should she be branded a criminal for not taking sufficient care with her health? If she doesn’t take regular exercise and eat healthy foods, or is obese, does the expectant mother deserve to appear in court to explain her heinous actions?

According to the BBC, advice given to expectant women in the 1900s included ‘to avoid exciting books, breath taking pictures or family quarrels, and not to ride motorcycles or small cars over bumpy roads’. In addition ‘women were considered temperamentally unsound if they took exercise or even rode a bicycle’. That advice seems ludicrous and laughable now, but the principle behind it, of attempting to remove a woman’s freedom of choice on the basis that her body is not her own, that she is merely a vessel for the unborn child, remains a contentious issue in 2014.

If the woman accused of a ‘crime of violence’ had not known she was pregnant, would she still be appearing before a court? There have been many reported cases of women who do not discover they are pregnant until the very late stages, or even until they go into labour. In addition, in the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland), abortion is legally available all over the country. If drinking heavily during pregnancy is a ‘crime of violence’, surely choosing to end your child’s life would be deemed equally unacceptable? Are we going to regress to a time when women had almost no rights, and pregnant women even less? Beverly Turner of The Telegraph has suggested that this case
‘opens the door to dictating and potentially criminalising women’s behaviour in pregnancy’. She says that ‘finding this mother guilty would be to find her guilty of an addiction’.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the child in this case, and any other child who has to suffer the effects of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, deserves our sympathy. No one should have to experience a terrible illness through no fault of their own. However, the solution on offer in this case is to brand the woman a criminal. By doing this, the life of her child will not change. Other women who have addictions will continue to feed those addictions during pregnancy, not because they would willingly hurt their unborn child, but because they feel they have no other options. These women need our support, not condemnation! Vilifying pregnant women for being human and making mistakes is misogynistic and wrong. We cannot allow our freedom of choice to be taken away by finger wagging doctors and politicians. We cannot endorse a situation in which pregnant women are being monitored for particular behaviours wherever they go, and in which their ability to make their own decisions about their own bodies has been eroded to almost nothing. It is facile to conclude that the mother in the case should be punished for her bad behaviour. She is not a naughty child who has to be told what she has done is wrong. She knows that already, and is probably wracked with guilt over what her child is going through, in addition to experiencing the pain of having him taken into care because of her actions. This woman, and others like her, should elicit sympathy. They are ill people, not criminals!

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