A court case ruling on criminal injuries compensation for a child whose mother drank during pregnancy could pave the way to the criminalisation of pregnant women’s behaviour, two leading women’s charities have warned.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) and Birthrights are intervening in the case, which they believe could seriously undermine women’s autonomy while pregnant and their freedom to make decisions for themselves.
The case is being heard at the Court of Appeal on Wednesday 5th November.
A council in the north-west of England is seeking 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.
The case is of profound social significance, as if the court were to interpret the law as requested by the council, it would establish a legal precedent which could be used to prosecute women who drink while pregnant.
Similar developments in the U.S.A. have resulted in the incarceration of women. Consequently, the American organisation National Advocates for 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, denoting a collection of features including retarded growth, facial abnormalities and intellectual impairment, and 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 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.
Pregnant women with addiction problems need rapid access to specialist support services, as do children born with disability caused by drug or alcohol abuse. bpas and Birthrights do not believe that mothers and their babies will be best served by treating vulnerable pregnant women as criminals.
In a joint statement, Ann Furedi, chief executive of bpas, and Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights, said: “Viewing these cases as potential criminal offences will do nothing for the health of women and their babies.
“There is a strong public interest in promoting the good health of pregnant women and babies but, as long-standing government policy recognises, this interest is best served by treating addiction and substance abuse in pregnancy as a public health, not criminal, issue.
“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.”