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Should It Ever Be a Criminal Offence for a Pregnant Woman to Drink Alcohol?

Updated on July 4, 2018
Diana Grant profile image

I'm a retired lawyer interested in thuman rights, current affairs, psychology, law, justice, criminology, philosophical & ethical questions

What if the woman has been warned that her drinking is likely to harm the foetus?

In the UK, lawyers for various local councils are representing some 80 children who have been mentally or physically damaged because of their mothers' consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.

A local council is currently taking a case to the Court of Appeal for a ruling on whether a child who is now in foster care and whose brain was damaged because her mother drank during pregnancy was a victim of a crime against her. The basis of the case is that the mother was warned of the risk to the foetus if she continued drinking, and that she therefore knowingly poisoned it, thereby committing a criminal offence.

If the Court of Appeal rules in this test case in favour of the child, this will set a precedent for many new cases to be brought against mothers whose children have suffered Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder because their mother has deliberately continued to drink during pregnancy in spite of being warned of the consequences.

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Symptoms of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder:

Some of the symptoms of this disorder are behavioural problems, learning disability and physical illness.

I personally know of one family where the mother was a heavy social drinker, who had six children, and was actually drunk when giving birth on one occasion. The youngest of her children told me that only one of his siblings was completely healthy. and some had very serious disorders - one had epilepsy whilst another had a hormonal order causing premature ageing and had to take lifelong strong medication.

According to the Times newspaper, up to 7,000 babies a year are damaged by the drinking habits of their pregnant mothers. Many of these children are removed from their mothers and taken into care.

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The Court's Decision:

In the lower court, at first instance, it was decided that the mother had indeed administered a poison or other destructive or noxious thing, thereby inflicting grievous bodily harm (which is a criminal offence). But the Court decided that a crime had not been committed because an unborn child is not a "person", and in that situation, there could not be a crime against a person.

A Precedent for a New Right?

If the Appeal Court sets a precedent by deciding that knowingly causing damage to an unborn child by consuming alcohol during pregnancy is a crime, this will, in effect, be giving new and previously unrecognized rights to the unborn child.

Far-Reaching Consequences:

Giving legal rights to unborn children will have a considerable effect on women’s rights, including the State’s interference in their private lives. Will this mean that women will in future be prosecuted for even one drink or moderate drinking during pregnancy if their doctor or social worker disapproves? Where will it all end?

The coin is still up in the air.

© 2014 Diana Grant

What Problems do You Envisage if This Becomes Law?

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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      5 years ago from Oklahoma

      I think it should be a criminal charge.

      Interesting hub.

    • Wendy L Henderson profile image

      Wendy Henderson 

      5 years ago from PA

      I think this is a good thing. But the problem is where do you draw the line? I didn't drink at all with any of my kids, but I don't think a glass of wine occasionally would hurt anything.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      It's a tough call I guess, because although on the one hand a woman ought to have the right to drink alcohol, when she is pregnant this is highly likely to harm the fetus. If it was my call, I would make it illegal definitely.

    • Diana Grant profile imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      6 years ago from London

      Yes, I wasn't told about alcohol either, in the 1960s. The recent advice this week on the internet is that what mothers (and possibly) fathers eat BEFORE conception is also important. That makes sense, bearing in mind they are creating an organism.

    • brakel2 profile image

      Audrey Selig 

      6 years ago from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

      At the home of my pregnancies, doctors did not warn pregnant mothers about alcohol, to my knowledge. I drank socially and had no problems. However, I think pregnant women should try to avoid alcohol. Enforcing it might become a real issue. Interesting hub. Nice to meet you. Blessings. Audrey

    • Diana Grant profile imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      6 years ago from London

      Yes Sherry, the whole proposal is fraught with problems

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      6 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I actually heard some discussion about this on NPR today, I think they were talking about legislation that has been proposed in some states in the US.

      It seems like the idea that the mother is voluntarily harming her child goes against the whole idea of addiction as a disease. If it is a disease, then it is not voluntary.

      I would worry that women would avoid seeking medical care and/or substance abuse treatment to avoid prosecution. Also, the woman might choose to end the pregnancy to avoid those legal issues.

      It's a tough problem, and challenging to know how to best address it.

    • Diana Grant profile imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      6 years ago from London

      I think it's going to be difficult to know where to draw the line, if it becomes law

    • srsddn profile image


      6 years ago from Dehra Dun, India

      Diana, I found the percentage of children with emotional and beahavioural difficulties in the United Kingdom quite high during my stay at Manchester University about two decades back. Apart from others, adverse family conditions including nuclear family with both parents working or single parent etc. were considered to be the primary causes. Alcoholism could also be one of the causes. It is heartening to note that protection of unborn children has caught the attention of lawmakers. There may be difficulties in setting the norms, monitoring would-be mothers and establishing the cause and effect relationship. A strong component of counselling of pregnant women could also be a part of the strategy. It is certainly a welcome move.


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