Test case could change the law on drinking in pregnancy
A test case heading for the Court of Appeal could dramatically change the law on mothers drinking during pregnancy.
The case was brought by a local council from the north of England and aims to show that a child’s mother had committed a crime based on the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (the same law used to criminalise assault and murder) by drinking alcohol while pregnant. It is opposed by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). A final verdict in favour of the council’s point of view could mean a series of large pay outs for the CICA.
If the arguments in favour of the child being regarded as a crime victim succeed, some experts believe the ruling could lead the way in making drinking during pregnancy a criminal offence.
Drinking during pregnancy can cause Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) though studies to determine how much, if anything, a woman can safely drink while carrying a baby have mixed results.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the law charity Birthrights have requested permission to address the court hearing the case in their role as interested parties. They are afraid that the outcome could seriously undermine the freedom of women to make choices for themselves during pregnancy. The organisations fear that
“A decision [that it was a criminal act] would treat pregnant women differently from other legally competent persons, and threaten their right to make autonomous decisions about their lives and bodies. As well as undermining women’s choices, it might also deter women who need support from seeking help during pregnancy and put health professionals under pressure to report women suspected of drinking to the police.”
The case is now at the appeal stage after the original hearing at a tribunal found the child had been a victim of crime. A higher tribunal then found against that ruling on the basis that prior to birth the child was not a legal person and therefore could not be the victim of a crime. An even higher appellate court has now been called on to consider the matter.
Most children whose mothers drink throughout pregnancy remain unaffected by the alcohol that reaches their bodies but a number are affected by FAS or Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
The advice around pregnancy and drinking is confusing, with some experts from the Department of Health advising that no alcohol should be consumed while the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence advise that alcohol should be avoided in trimester one only. More confusing still the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggests that there is no firm evidence to suggest that small amounts of alcohol are harmful during pregnancy.
The “safe” limits are currently under review and a Department of Health spokesman has said new guidelines are expected in 2015.