Protecting human rights in childbirth

Registered Charity Number 1151152

Birthrights applies to Court of Appeal to intervene in fetal alcohol case

A forthcoming court case on criminal injuries compensation for a child whose mother drank during pregnancy could pave the way to the criminalisation of pregnant women’s behaviour, Birthrights and
the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) warned today.

We have applied with bpas to address the court on the case, which we believe could seriously undermine women’s autonomy while pregnant and their freedom to make decisions for themselves.

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. 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 US have resulted in the incarceration of women. The case is due to be heard at the Court of Appeal later this year.

Birthrights has previously blogged about the case here.

FAS is a complex condition, denoting a collection of features including retarded growth, facial abnormalities and intellectual impairment. While it occurs in babies born to alcoholic women, most babies of alcoholic women 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 – a prevalence rate of 0.36 per 1,000 live births (based on 694,241 births in England in 2012).

Pregnant women with addiction problems need rapid access to specialist support services, as do children born with disability caused by drug or alcohol abuse. Birthrights and bpas do not believe that mothers and their babies will be best served by treating pregnant women who need help as criminals.

Viewing these cases as potentially criminal offences will do nothing for the health of women or their babies. As well as undermining women’s ability to make their own choices while pregnant, it is likely to deter those women who do need support from seeking it and put health professionals under pressure to report women to the police. Both the immediate and broader implications of this case are troubling. We should take very seriously any legal developments which call into question the autonomy of pregnant women 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.