Alcohol and pregnancy, a debate that rages on.  Whilst there is evidence that the odd glass of wine when pregnant will not have any adverse effects on your unborn child, there is equal evidence to suggest that crossing the line and drinking too much will.   Of course, for peace of mind, the safest route to take is to abstain from alcohol during your pregnancy, but should that be compulsory?  Should it be illegal to drink when pregnant?

Far fetched as it may seem to think you could be prosecuted for drinking too much whilst pregnant, in fact, a council in the North West of England has tried to prove that the mother of a girl born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome committed a crime under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 by drinking during pregnancy.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is a complex condition, denoting a collection of features including retarded growth, facial abnormalities and intellectual impairment, and there is continuing uncertainty in the medical community over the relationship between alcohol consumption and harm to the foetus. While it occurs in babies born to alcoholic women, most babies of alcoholic women will not be affected, as other factors – including nutritional status, genetic make-up of mother and foetus, age and general health are also believed to play a role.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) and Birthrights intervened in the case because they believed it would establish a legal precedent which could be used to prosecute women who drink while pregnant and would do nothing for the health of alcoholic mothers and their babies.    Following a hearing last month. the Court of Appeal ruled this week that the mother’s actions were not a crime, a decision welcomed by the two women’s charities welcomed.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights, said:

“This is an extremely important ruling for women everywhere. The UK’s highest courts have recognised that women must be able to make their own decisions about their pregnancies.

“Both the immediate and broader implications of the case were troubling. In seeking to establish that the damage caused to a foetus through heavy drinking was a criminal offence, the case called into question women’s legal status while pregnant, and right to make their own decisions. Any ruling which found that drinking while pregnant constituted a ‘crime of violence’ could have paved the way to the criminalisation of pregnant women’s behaviour – an alarming prospect given the ever expanding list of activities women are warned may pose a risk to the health of their baby.

“A small number of women drink very heavily throughout their pregnancy. Their problems will not be helped either by the threat of prosecution – making them even less likely to seek help – or through ever more warnings about the dangers of ‎drinking while pregnant. Women in this situation need rapid access to specialist help and support, as do children born with disability caused by alcohol abuse. This case was brought by the council in order to win compensation for a child born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, which could be used to fund her care. We must find a way to ensure that the small number of children born with this condition have the resources they need to live their lives to the full without resorting to criminalising their mothers.”

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