A landmark case has ruled that a mother who inflicted lifelong damage on her child after drinking heavily during her pregnancy did not commit a criminal offence.
Drinking while pregnant is not a criminal offence, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
A judge has found that a mother who drank heavily – eight cans of lager and half a bottle of vodka per day – while pregnant has not commited a crime.
The child, who was born with foetal alcohol syndrome and is now in care, is not legally entitled to compensation, the Court of Appeal ruled. The three judges, Lord Justice Dyson, Lord Justice Treacy and Lady Justice King, agreed that the unborn baby was a ‘unique organism’ but not a person.
Lord Justice Dyson said: ‘The time at which harm, acknowledged in this case to amount to grievous bodily harm, occurred was whilst [the child] was in the womb,” he said in his judgment.
‘At that stage the child did not have legal personality so as to constitute “any other person:.’
He added: ‘A mother who is pregnant and who drinks to excess despite knowledge of the potential harmful consequence to the child of doing so is not guilty of a criminal offence under the law if her child is subsequently born damaged as a result.’
On 6th November, we wrote:
It’s a taboo subject that often divides opinion: should drinking during pregnancy be classed as a criminal offence? Women’s charities are warning it could happen in the future and it all depends on a court case being heard today…
A local authority in the North West of England is seeking criminal injuries compensation for a six-year-old girl in care who has ”growth retardation” caused by her mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
The case has raised huge questions about the legal ramifications surrounding alcohol consumption and pregnancy with women’s charities such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Birthrights warning the outcome of the case could pave the way for the criminalisation of such behaviour.
Ann Furedi, chief executive of bpas, and Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights, said: ‘Making one particular form of behaviour during pregnancy into a criminal offence would lay the ground for criminalising a wide range of other behaviours because they may too pose a risk to the health of the baby.’
They concluded: ‘We should take very seriously any legal developments which call into question pregnant women’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy 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.’
We’re opening the debate up to you, our readers: should drinking during pregnancy be criminalised? Or is this latest development a step too far?
The majority of our readers have expressed alarm at the news that pregnancy drinking could be potentially criminalised. Many have echoed the concerns of women’s charities, calling it a medical issue for vulnerable women not a criminal one. However, some of you strongly agree with the prospect of criminal sanction.
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Jo Lilley says on Facebook ‘There are many other lifestyle choices that could put a baby at risk… Should we make them all criminal offences?’
‘How about freedom of choice? I had a total of 3 glasses of prosecco in my whole pregnancy and they were in the last month. Are we going to criminalise smoking during pregnancy also?’ Jen Bolton asks.
Lisa Lewis agrees saying: ‘Absolutely not! As a mother, I can’t imagine many women drinking whilst pregnant unless they had a dependency issue, which I strongly believe should be treated medically, not criminally. Criminalising this would just create another reason for vulnerable women to not seek help for the sake of themselves AND their unborn child.’
Meanwhile, Amie Withrington added ‘Your carrying & growing the most priceless thing in the world for 9mths. Is it such a big deal not to drink & smoke to protect your baby, that you wanted. It’s about time we started taking responsibility for our selves, look after your baby from day 1 & act like a parent!!’