A landmark court case, to be heard by the UK’s Court of Appeal, could lead to pregnancy and drinking to be criminalized in the UK. The Court of Appeal claims a six-year-old girl has suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS,) caused by her mother drinking during her pregnancy. The council is arguing she is a victim of a crime and has the right for compensation.
FAS can cause severe brain damage, which could begin within days after conception. Cells, that are meant to build the baby’s brain, organs and central nervous system, are shown to be severely harmed and the effects are irreparable. Children may suffer from behavioral problems, learning disabilities and memory lapses and doctors even compare drinking during pregnancy with punching holes in the child’s brain. Coordinator Gayle Young of the FAS diagnostic team in Sitka, Alaska, says, “It is a silent epidemic. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy also reshapes the face of the child and I often see it in children’s faces while I am at the grocery store.” According to doctors, facial features of children who are affected by FAS are narrow eye openings, a thin upper lip and a flatter philtrum.
Marylin Pierce-Bulger, a nurse practitioner who diagnoses alcohol-related birth defects in children, thinks criminalizing drinking during pregnancy could be a good idea. “Although all types of drugs have an impact on the child’s brain, the legal drug, alcohol, is worse than illegal drugs. Nothing except alcohol causes a child’s brain to be damaged so severely and to reshape the child’s face,” she said. According to Pierce-Bulger, it is true that alcohol has an effect on the child’s brain within days after conception; however, the facial features and severe brain damage are typically formed right after a woman may miss her menstrual period. “Most women do not pay attention to alcohol consumption at this early stage of the pregnancy, because they do not even know if they are pregnant yet,” Pierce-Bulger said. Others, who have experienced or worked with children with FAS, are worried about criminalizing drinking during the early stage of pregnancy.
The National Organization for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome UK (NOFAS-UK) is heavily involved in the discussion of criminalizing alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Susan Fleisher, founder of NOFAS-UK, says, “A woman cannot be prosecuted for something she is not aware of and women with alcohol problems should be able to get support and education so they know they can harm their child’s life. Much more needs to be done to create awareness of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, but criminalizing it is not the answer.”
Whether or not drinking during pregnancy will be criminalized in the UK could strongly affect the incidences of FAS in the future. In the past three years, the Department of Health has shown a rise of 50 percent in FAS incidences in the UK, with 313 babies severely affected by alcohol consumption in 2012 and 2013. The landmark court case, which is currently being heard, is seen as a test case for up to 7,000 babies in the UK that could be affected by FAS.
By Diana Herst