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Warnings over drinking while pregnant are too extreme and “sexist”, say experts

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From eating sushi to smoking and drinking alcohol, we all know that there are certain things you’re not supposed to do while pregnant.

But according to experts, “sexist” warnings over the dangers of drinking while pregnant have been overstated – and could actually be harmful to women.

Under revised guidelines that came into force in January 2016, women are advised “not to drink at all while [they are] expecting”. Previously, official advice had said that pregnant women could potentially drink one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week without worrying.

Now, a group of academics and advocates from women’s groups argue that this “overly precautionary” advice has no basis in evidence, and could end up causing pregnant women unnecessary anxiety.


Read more: Contraception is an emotional and mental burden for women, study finds


In some instances, pregnant women may even have abortions because of fears that their drinking has irreparably damaged the foetus, the Guardian reports.

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There is scant evidence that drinking small amounts while pregnant will damage a foetus, say experts.

Contraception and abortion charity the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), maternal rights campaign group Birthrights and parenting academics are calling for official guidelines on drinking while pregnant to be relaxed.

 “We need to think hard about how risk is communicated to women on issues relating to pregnancy,” says Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPAS.


Read more: The badass women blazing a trail for reproductive rights around the world


She continues: “There can be real consequences to overstating evidence or implying certainty when there isn’t any.

“Doing so can cause women needless anxiety and alarm, sometimes to the point that they consider ending an unplanned but not unwanted pregnancy because of fears they have caused irreparable harm.”

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Official advice states that pregnant women should abstain from alcohol entirely.

Ellie Lee, director of the centre for parenting culture studies at the University of Kent, describes the guidelines as “sexist”. Since it is “impossible” to prove whether or not drinking while pregnant is 100% safe, she says, women could end up feeling socially shunned without good cause.

“The scrutiny and oversight of [women’s] behaviour the official approach invites is not benign,” says Lee. “It creates anxiety and impairs ordinary social interaction.

“The exclusion of women from an ordinary activity on the basis of ‘precaution’ can more properly be called sexist than benign.”


Watch: How to win any feminist argument


If a mother drinks heavily and consistently throughout her pregnancy, there is a chance her child could be born with foetal alcohol syndrome disorder. Children with FASD can have mental and physical defects including poor growth, cerebral palsy, hearing and vision problems and ADHD.

However, delegates at the upcoming Policing Pregnancy: Who Should be a Mother? conference will hear that there no robust evidence that isolated binge drinking incidents cause long-term damage. As a result, women who have drunk heavily before realising they are pregnant – a common phenomenon in the UK – should not worry unduly about the health of their baby.

The Royal College of Midwives has rejected the argument that official guidelines are sexist or too stringent, repeating the advice that pregnant women – and women trying to become pregnant – should refrain from drinking entirely.

““This advice is not about policing pregnant women’s behaviour, it is about giving them unbiased information and enabling them to make the choice that is right for them,” says Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the RCM.

“Cumulative and regular alcohol consumption in pregnancy could have an impact on the health and well-being of mother and baby.”

Images: iStock

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