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Should It Ever Be a Criminal Offence for a Pregnant Woman to Drink Alcohol?

I'm a retired lawyer interested in thuman rights, current affairs, psychology, law, justice, criminology, philosophical & ethical questions

Temptation for Some People

Temptation for Some People

What if the Woman Has Been Warned That Her Drinking Is Likely to Harm the Foetus?

In the UK, lawyers for various local councils have represented nearly 100 children who have been mentally or physically damaged because of their mothers' consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.

In December 2014 a local council took a case to the Court of Appeal for a ruling on whether a child who was put into foster care and whose brain was damaged because her mother drank during pregnancy was a victim of a crime against her. The basis of the case is that the mother was warned of the risk to the foetus if she continued drinking, and that she therefore knowingly poisoned it, thereby committing a criminal offence.

If the Court of Appeal had ruled in this test case in favour of the child, this would have set a precedent for many new cases to be brought against mothers whose children have suffered Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder because their mother has deliberately continued to drink during pregnancy in spite of being warned of the consequences.

For a more detailed account of the 2014 case, read the BBC article Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Case Dismissed by Court of Appeal

Symptoms of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder:

Some of the symptoms of this disorder are behavioural problems, learning disability and physical illness.

I personally know of one family where the mother was a heavy social drinker, who had six children, and was actually drunk when giving birth on one occasion. The youngest of her children told me that only one of his siblings was completely healthy. and some had very serious disorders--one had epilepsy whilst another had a hormonal order causing premature ageing and had to take lifelong strong medication.

According to the Times newspaper, up to 7,000 babies a year are damaged by the drinking habits of their pregnant mothers. Many of these children are removed from their mothers and taken into care.

The Court's Decision:

In the lower court, at first instance, it was decided that the mother had indeed administered a poison or other destructive or noxious thing, thereby inflicting grievous bodily harm (which is a criminal offence). But the Court decided that a crime had not been committed because an unborn child is not a "person", and in that situation, there could not be a crime against a person.

A Precedent for a New Right?

If the Appeal Court had set a precedent by deciding that knowingly causing damage to an unborn child by consuming alcohol during pregnancy is a crime, this would, in effect, have been giving new and previously unrecognized rights to the unborn child.

The debate still rages on as to whether and at what time a foetus is regarded in law as having the same rights as someone after their birth. This relates particularly to the abortion laws of a country--a subject which is much disputed all over the world.

Far-Reaching Consequences:

Giving legal rights to unborn children would have a considerable effect on women’s rights, including the State’s interference in their private lives. Will this mean that women will in future be prosecuted for even one drink or moderate drinking during pregnancy if their doctor or social worker disapproves? Where will it all end?

The coin is still up in the air.

An Alcoholics Anonymous Slogan: "One Day at a Time"

One Day at a Time--Painted by John Parker

One Day at a Time--Painted by John Parker

Links to Recent Articles

The Videos Below Will Show You The Effect Alcohol May Have on a Pregnant Woman and Her Unborn Child

How must their families feel about this now? It's something to think about, isn't it?

I never knew it would be like this until I started watching the YouTube videos.

© 2014 Diana Grant

What Problems do You Envisage if This Becomes Law?

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on July 20, 2015:

I think it should be a criminal charge.

Interesting hub.

Wendy Henderson from PA on June 16, 2015:

I think this is a good thing. But the problem is where do you draw the line? I didn't drink at all with any of my kids, but I don't think a glass of wine occasionally would hurt anything.

Tony Payne from Southampton, UK on September 06, 2014:

It's a tough call I guess, because although on the one hand a woman ought to have the right to drink alcohol, when she is pregnant this is highly likely to harm the fetus. If it was my call, I would make it illegal definitely.

Diana Grant (author) from London on May 01, 2014:

Yes, I wasn't told about alcohol either, in the 1960s. The recent advice this week on the internet is that what mothers (and possibly) fathers eat BEFORE conception is also important. That makes sense, bearing in mind they are creating an organism.

Audrey Selig from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 30, 2014:

At the home of my pregnancies, doctors did not warn pregnant mothers about alcohol, to my knowledge. I drank socially and had no problems. However, I think pregnant women should try to avoid alcohol. Enforcing it might become a real issue. Interesting hub. Nice to meet you. Blessings. Audrey

Diana Grant (author) from London on April 29, 2014:

Yes Sherry, the whole proposal is fraught with problems

Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on April 21, 2014:

I actually heard some discussion about this on NPR today, I think they were talking about legislation that has been proposed in some states in the US.

It seems like the idea that the mother is voluntarily harming her child goes against the whole idea of addiction as a disease. If it is a disease, then it is not voluntary.

I would worry that women would avoid seeking medical care and/or substance abuse treatment to avoid prosecution. Also, the woman might choose to end the pregnancy to avoid those legal issues.

It's a tough problem, and challenging to know how to best address it.

Diana Grant (author) from London on February 13, 2014:

I think it's going to be difficult to know where to draw the line, if it becomes law

srsddn from Dehra Dun, India on February 12, 2014:

Diana, I found the percentage of children with emotional and beahavioural difficulties in the United Kingdom quite high during my stay at Manchester University about two decades back. Apart from others, adverse family conditions including nuclear family with both parents working or single parent etc. were considered to be the primary causes. Alcoholism could also be one of the causes. It is heartening to note that protection of unborn children has caught the attention of lawmakers. There may be difficulties in setting the norms, monitoring would-be mothers and establishing the cause and effect relationship. A strong component of counselling of pregnant women could also be a part of the strategy. It is certainly a welcome move.

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