Alcohol in pregnancy could be ‘a crime’

Date published: 02 February 2014

Women who harm their unborn babies by drinking alcohol during pregnancy could be found guilty of a criminal offence, it has been revealed.

A new legal test case claims a six-year-old girl who suffered brain damage due to alcohol exposure in the womb is the victim of a crime.

The case is being brought before the Court of Appeal by a council in north west England, according to The Sunday Times.

If successful, it could mean that women across the country may be convicted of a criminal act if they damage their unborn child by drinking during pregnancy.

Current guidelines state that expectant mothers should avoid alcohol - but if they do choose to drink, they should limit their consumption to one or two units a week.

Lawyers in the case are representing 80 children across the UK who suffered from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder after their mothers drank alcohol while pregnant.

The disorder causes a range of physical and mental health problems, including facial abnormalities, learning disabilities and growth issues.

Many of the children - including the six-year-old girl - have now been adopted or placed in foster care.

In an earlier tribunal of the test case, the young girl was found to be the victim of a crime.

However, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has appealed against this decision - claiming the child was a foetus - and therefore, 'not a person' - at the time.

Women's rights campaigners have warned that giving legal rights to unborn babies could have serious implications.

It comes as up to 7,000 children a year in Britain have been revealed to be affected by alcohol exposure in the womb.

Paediatricians - who specialise in the care of children - claim as many as 1 per cent of babies born in England suffer behavioural or developmental problems from their mothers' drinking.

One consultant even said that if women must have one bad habit while pregnant, it would be safer to smoke tobacco or cannabis than drink alcohol.

Dr Neil Aiton, a paediatrician at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "If it is a choice between a drink, a smoke or a spliff then ‘don’t drink’, would be my recommendation.

"We have firm evidence that drinking alcohol regularly is damaging.

"Cigarettes cause babies to be born a bit on the smaller side. There is other evidence but it is minor compared to the long-term neurological and psychological damage that alcohol causes to the nervous system.’

Dr Raja Mukherjee, who runs for a clinic children and adults with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), has estimated that between 1 and 3 per cent of the population is affected by FASDs.

However, she said many of the children grow up unaware of the cause of their condition.

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