Belfast Telegraph

Jail threat for drinking while pregnant just leaves a bad taste

Punishing often unsuspecting mums-to-be for consuming alcohol is a short-sighted aproach to a complex societal issue, says Deborah Coughlin.

When I went to university, in 1998, we only had to pay £1,000 for our tuition fees, banks were throwing loans at us (with PPI) and shots were less than £1 in our student bar. This was the golden age of binge drinking and I carried on way into my twenties. If I had got unintentionally pregnant, I would definitely have been drinking, and possibly heavily, up until I discovered I was pregnant. Even then it might have been hard to remain 100% teetotal, simply because of the culture I lived in and the confusing advice available. But if that happened to me under what may be about to become law, I could have ended up in jail.

That's because drinking while pregnant could become a criminal offence if a landmark case in England finds a six-year-old girl is entitled to criminal injuries compensation after she was left with growth problems associated with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and caused by her mother's alcohol consumption during pregnancy. FASDs are preventable birth defects caused entirely by a woman drinking alcohol at any time during her pregnancy, often even before she knows that she is pregnant.

If this case succeeds, we are going into dangerous territory where the behaviour of pregnant women is policed, and the most vulnerable women will be criminalised instead of being offered help.

I know an awful lot of people who have conceived under the influence. I also know women who have accidentally drunk heavily or even taken recreational drugs while pregnant. Accidentally because that was a normal part of their social life and they did not know they were pregnant - which is surprisingly common.

In the US in 2006, almost half of pregnancies were unexpected (US National Library of Medicine). In the UK last year, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles concluded 55% of pregnancies were "planned", against 16.2% "unplanned" and 29% "ambivalent" - which I'm assuming could still be a surprise. It also found "the majority of unplanned pregnancies occur in women aged 20 to 34 years" - exactly the point where many women are partying.

Unless we start a new ban on women of child-bearing age being allowed to buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio there will always be women drinking during part of their pregnancy, and then, like so many other dangers in life, it will be luck of the draw as to whether the child is adversely affected.

Then what could instigate an investigation? Your ex-partner accusing you during a divorce? And if you are accused will or won't you have the legal resources and money to persuade a court you were unaware you were pregnant at the time you consumed the glass of Prosecco?

The real issue here has got to be women who, even when they know they are pregnant, cannot stop drinking. Punishing them once their baby is born and showing symptoms of FASD is the very definition of shutting the gate once the horse has bolted. Drug use and depression are common in women who have unplanned pregnancies - so it's exactly the women who are likely to be drinking more who might not know they are pregnant. These women need support, not a new level of stigma that may scare them into not seeking the help they need.

In the US this July, a Tennessee woman was the first to be charged under a new state law that makes it a crime to take drugs while pregnant. Mallory Loyola (26) was arrested after she and her newborn infant tested positive for meth.

The Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens said: "Hopefully it will send a signal to other women who are pregnant and have a drug problem to seek help. That's what we want them to do."

Really? Because I'm not sure locking women up and taking their baby away from them will encourage addict mums to get help.

The effect of criminalisation on addicts and alcoholics is well-documented. Addiction can be a powerful survival strategy, learnt at a young age, much more powerful than pregnancy and the chance of harm to an unborn baby.

Sometimes getting pregnant is the coveted "wake-up call"; sometimes the addiction is too strong. And it's these women who are most vulnerable that we need to be concerned for.

We need strategies for engaging women at risk of habitual alcohol and drug use that will support them and their children. Our energy and resources would be better spent helping everyone to learn to deal with the normal stresses and strains of life without needing to turn to booze.

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