Lawmakers in the United Kingdom (UK) will soon be called upon to determine if drinking alcoholic beverages while pregnant is a crime or merely a reckless exercise of personal choice. Legal representatives of a six-year-old girl claim she is a victim of a crime that left her with brain damage even though her mother knew that drinking while pregnant put the girl in danger.
Statistical data from the UK Department of Health indicates as many as one in every 100 babies born in the UK is born with disorders associated with alcohol exposure in utero. The rate of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) has risen by 50% in the last three years.
Dr. Raja Mukherjee, a psychiatric consultant, says determining a safe level of drinking during pregnancy is a tough call to make. Avoidance is the safest route, according to Mukherjee. He says most people who drink a bit while pregnant won’t harm their child but there are no guarantees of safety.
Sue Brett understands what life is like for a child of FAS and says you can’t have the law going both ways. Her adopted son, Glenn, now 15, has the mental age of a child of 4 years. Physical disabilities affect his vision and freedom of movement. His birth mother was a heavy drinker throughout her pregnancy with Glenn.
If the court determines drinking during pregnancy is a criminal act, it needs to apply to all drinking, not just drinking to excess, according to Brett. “You can’t make it a criminal offence if you are still legally saying this is a safe amount to drink or you can drink. It needs to be clear from the start that you can’t drink,” she said. Brett would like to see the women of the UK become more aware of the dangers of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
Susan Fleisher founded NOFAS-UK, a charity devoted to the promotion of awareness of alcohol’s impact on pregnancy. Fleisher agrees with Brett that more awareness is needed but doesn’t agree that criminalization is the solution.
According to Fleisher, “women can’t be prosecuted for something they don’t know about.” She feels women who are alcoholic would be better served by a support system that provides information on the birth defects associated with drinking during pregnancy rather than by prosecution.
The UK Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear the case of the 6-year-old girl in the near future. The outcome of this case, described as a landmark legal decision, is sure to have impact far beyond the UK alone.
Source: Gander, Kashmira, “Drinking alcohol while pregnant could become a crime after landmark test case.” The Independent, Independent.co.uk, Feb 23, 2014, Web, Mar 2, 2014.