Should women who drank alcohol while they were preganant be prosecuted?


Why, someone might ask, is alcohol consumption a crime?

Well, as some of the readers may know, there is a case in the Court of Appeal which has been brought by a local Authority in the North of England, on behalf of a 6 year old, who alleges that her mother was irresponsible by consuming alcohol while pregnant, with the consequence that she, the 6 year old girl, was born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

FAS is a pattern of physical and mental defects that can develop in a foetus in association with high levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The critical word being ‘in association’. The Barrister for the plaintiff, John Foy QC, claims that the woman “administered a noxious substance” that was “destructive” to her daughter and it “inflicted grievous bodily harm” – tantamount to a crime of poisoning. And on par with manslaughter. At least as  far as CRIMINAL INJUSTICE COMPENSATION AUTHORITY is concerned, the lawyers of the authority say.

Charities the british Pregnancy Advisory Service and Birthright warned that the case could set a legal precedent to prosecute women who drink while pregnant. They say that while the case was of “profound social significance”, any developments would “call into question a pregnant womans fundamental right to bodily autonomy”

Neil Sugarman of GLP solicitors, the lawyers of the prosecution summarised the case as follows:

“All we are seeking to do on behalf of this child is to get the court of Appeal to accept that it is a criminal act for the purposes of the scheme. It’s not about criminalising women”

But is this really the route our society should be taking? I mean, where do we draw the line? When the mother of the affected child was ‘drinking’, the child was but a foetus, who is not recognised as a person under law, so couldn’t possibly be a ‘victim’ of a crime? Or could she?

Also, the mother was on drugs, which she claims she stopped as soon as she discovered that she was pregnant. How soon did she stop? Did she really stop, abruptly, just like that? I mean LSD, Cannabis and Amphetamines – in the wrong quantities are some strong stuff, which I’d imagine are not as easy to abruptly shake off so suddenly. What if it wasn’t only the alcohol responsible for the FAS? What if  something else contributed? Are we going to go after smokers too? Those whose children were born with some kind of mental or physical defect? Or, for the sake of argument, women who someone tenuously hypothises that their promiscuity could be  a contributory factor to their child’s physical and mental deficiencies?

I think we are going down a dangerous road.

While I support investment into initiatives and measures designed to assist children with  FAS, while I support medical research into the condition, to better understand the underlying causes, time lines, etc, I am wary of making it a criminal issue because it may end up doing more harm to the baby than good. For example, some women who for whatever reason find themselves drinking a glass or half a glass of wine, say maybe on a bad or stressful night, may be reluctant to go to an Antenatal clinic for fear that they could be prosecuted. And that wouldnt be a good thing for the baby they are carrying.

Further, doesn’t it raise questions about the local authority itself? In this age of budget cuts and austerity, where councils across the country have been told to find savings in their budget and cut services (according to UNISON to the tune of £11.3 billion), is this local council not bringing this action in a backdoor attempt to plug a deficit in its own budget? A rogue attempt, as it were, to create an additional source of revenue? In other words, if we go after the ‘big fish mothers’ whose children were born with FAS, some insurers behind them will pay up? I know this line of thought is terribly imaginative, but I’m just wondering…

I believe a better approach would be for the government and organisations to continue raising awareness as to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, and to continue implementing policies and programmes designed to sensitize the public ( including men, young people and students of drinking age) that moderation is the best approach.

Because if the woman, the mother to this girl with FAS was addicted to not only alcohol, but also to drugs, that’s most certainly symptomatic of a deeper issue; be it low self-esteem, stress or depression, emotional dysfunction whose roots may be in her childhood, or something else. It would be wiser, more cost-effective, and at least in the long-term, more effective to target these ‘root issues’ which in my view are the real culprits of the said destructive behaviour.

In targeting what lays beneath the surface, we as a society would be moving away from a compensation culture, towards a path where we attempt to help people take control of their lives, an act which potentially help them become productive citizens.


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