Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a "real problem" in the Northern Territory (NT), according to its attorney-general, John Elferink. He places blame for the rising rate of FAS on "a passive welfare system that is expecting nothing" from its recipients. He suggests the Australian state “forcibly” explore the possibility of laws against drinking during pregnancy and restraining measures for women who cannot willingly abstain while pregnant.

Australia adopted a universal healthcare system — Medicare — in 1975. Elferink says the NT government spends millions of dollars every fortnight (two weeks) and then spends millions more addressing "the mess that creates." He also acknowledges the proposal to criminalize or forcibly restrain women who drink during pregnancy brings a number of human rights issues into question but said in a televised interview that "I'm not going to make any secret of the fact we're looking at it."

Alcohol Advocacy Weighs In

Caterina Giorgi, Director of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, says criminalization is not the answer. She says there aren't enough effective awareness and prevention measures in place. "There isn't great enough awareness across Australia that alcohol consumption during pregnancy causes conditions like fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and that what we need to do is we need to raise this awareness and we need to try and support people," she says.

A Criminal Lawyer Speaks

Russell Goldflam agrees that FAS is a growing problem with the potential for overwhelming the nation's health and social welfare systems but criminalization isn't the solution. Russell, a member of the Criminal Lawyers Association of Northern Territory, says invoking the criminal justice system to deal with this particular problem is "completely the wrong way to go about this." He feels turning pregnant women into prisoners is "the last thing that can help them."

A Pediatrician's Perspective

Pediatrician James Fitzpatrick specializes in FAS disorders in NT's neighboring state, Western Australia (WT). Fitzpatrick feels many women would voluntarily turn to help if it were offered in a supportive, rather than punitive, way. Many women who abuse alcohol do so to mentally escape homes that are impoverished, overcrowded, and violent. He feels many of these women would welcome an escape to a place "quieter, calmer, and more supportive" to ensure her child has the best chance at life.

Rosie Ann Fulton

Rosie Ann Fulton, 23, has spent the last 18 months in a Kalgoorlie, WT, jail although her case has never gone to trial and she hasn't been convicted of a crime. She was arrested for driving offenses but FAS has left her so intellectually impaired that the local magistrate declared her unfit to plead. Michelle Castagna, a disability advocate, says her lingering detention only creates more problems for Rosie. "Any behavior she is learning over there is likely to be (to) her detriment, so when does this woman get an opportunity to be given the services she requires?"

Source: "Drinking alcohol during pregnancy targeted as NT Government considers rights of unborn child." ABC News. ABC. Mar 14, 2014. Web. Mar 20, 2014.