A court case being heard tomorrow could pave the way for the criminalisation of women who drink when they are pregnant.
The case, which is being held at the Court of Appeal on November 5th, is seeking criminal injuries compensation for a child whose mother drank during pregnancy.
A council in the North-West of England is aiming to prove that the mother of a six-year-old girl born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) committed a crime under the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 by drinking during pregnancy.
However, if the ruling goes ahead this could set a legal precedent for women to be prosecuted, instead of being helped if they have serious alcohol problems, while they are pregnant.
Two leading women’s charities, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Birthrights, have stated that this could have dire consequences for pregnant women and that it will undermine women’s autonomy when they’re pregnant, limiting their freedom to make decisions for themselves.
The U.S. has already set such a precedent resulting in the incarceration of women. As a result, the National Advocates of Pregnant Women (NAPW) have called on the court to ‘reject efforts to create criminal penalties as a mechanism for addressing health problems women may face during pregnancy'.
FAS is a complex condition, which includes retarded growth, facial abnormalities and intellectual impairment. But there is continuing uncertainty in the medical community over the relationship between alcohol consumption and harm to the foetus.
While it occurs in babies born to alcoholic women, most babies of alcoholic women will not be affected, as other factors - including nutritional status, genetic make-up of mother and foetus, age and general health - are also believed to play a role. There were 252 diagnoses of the syndrome in England in 2012-2013.
Ann Furedi, chief executive of bpas and Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights said:
“We should take very seriously any legal developments which call into question pregnant women’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy and right to make their own decisions. Pregnant women deserve support and respect, not the prospect of criminal sanction for behaviour which would not be illegal for anyone else.”
Stylist.co.uk spoke to Clare Murphy, spokeswoman for BPAS, about what implications this would have for women:
“This doesn't mean that pregnant women who have a glass of wine in the pub are going to be arrested. We're talking about women who have alcohol problems, but they don’t need to be criminalised, they need help and support.”
“Any move that would see this happening would make it much harder for women who have alcohol problems to admit they need help. Not only that, midwives will be obliged to report them to the police.”
“It would be a very bad day for women if this ruling goes ahead. We would be speaking to Nicky Morgan, the Minister for Women and Equalities, about this if it does.”
“We don’t want to go down the same path as the US. I think at the end of the day everyone’s intentions are good, as it’s about getting funding for a child who’s been born with FAS, and they of course need support. But we don’t need to do that by criminalising women.”