Court of Appeal rules that drinking in pregnancy is not a crime

The Court of Appeal has ruled that the mother of a girl born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome did not commit a crime under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 by drinking during pregnancy.  A council in the North West of England had hoped to prove that a crime had been committed in order to claim criminal injuries compensation for the child.

The Court stated: “the role of the state in these circumstances should be to provide care and support for the child who has suffered harm to the extent that this is necessary. It should not be to pay compensation on the basis that the child is the victim of a crime by her mother.”

Birthrights and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) intervened in the case because they believed it would establish a legal precedent which could be used to prosecute women who drink while pregnant and would do nothing for the health of alcoholic mothers and their babies.You can read our intervention here: BPAS-Birthrights CP v CICA Intervention.

We welcome the ruling today. Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights and Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service explain:

“This is an extremely important ruling for women everywhere. The UK’s courts have recognised that women must be able to make their own decisions about their pregnancies.

“Both the immediate and broader implications of the case were troubling. In seeking to establish that the damage caused to a foetus through heavy drinking was a criminal offence, the case called into question women’s legal status while pregnant, and right to make their own decisions. Any ruling which found that drinking while pregnant constituted a ‘crime of violence’ could have paved the way to the criminalisation of pregnant women’s behaviour – an alarming prospect given the ever expanding list of activities women are warned may pose a risk to the health of their baby.

“A small number of women drink very heavily throughout their pregnancy. Their problems will not be helped either by the threat of prosecution – making them even less likely to seek help – or through ever more warnings about the dangers of ‎drinking while pregnant. Women in this situation need rapid access to specialist help and support, as do children born with disability caused by alcohol abuse. This case was brought by the council in order to win compensation for a child born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, which could be used to fund her care. We must find a way to ensure that the small number of children born with this condition have the resources they need to live their lives to the full without resorting to criminalising their mothers.”

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