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08-11-2014, 10:11
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This week there has been a sad story (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2822365/Mother-child-centre-landmark-drinking-pregnancy-court-case-downing-half-bottle-vodka-eight-cans-strong-lager-day-expecting.html) in the media about a case in which the Court of Appeal has been asked to rule whether a woman who drank heavily during pregnancy, causing her child to suffer from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, has committed a criminal act. The motivation seems be that the local council is trying to pass on the care costs to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, but it seems to involve the unnecessary stigmatisation of an unfortunate person. The woman in question was apparently drinking half a bottle of vodka and eight cans of “strong” lager a day, which makes her a full-blown alcoholic. Someone in that position is an addict who is no position to make a rational decision as to whether to drink or not, and surely they need help rather than prosecution.
The case also has wider implications. It has long been recognised that excessive alcohol consumption in pregnancy is likely to be damaging to unborn children, but medical experts have accepted that a couple of drinks a week is not going to be harmful. And that figure is probably erring very much on the side of caution. That always used to be the official advice, but a few years ago it was changed to drink nothing during pregnancy, not because the science had changed, but because that was felt to be a more simple and unequivocal message. This was strongly attacked (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/mar/21/comment.health) by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams (not someone I usually find much to agree with):
To think this government has the brass neck to lecture women about their gestational behaviour. It is an outrage against women; against the relationship between the state and the individual; and, without wishing to be mawkish, against babies.(By the way, she is referring to the last government, not the present one)
If the case succeeds it has been widely suggested that the principle will be enshrined in law that expectant mothers should not consume anything potentially harmful to their unborn babies. So they won’t be able to drink at all. Or to smoke, or to eat “unhealthy” foods. Now doing all of these things while pregnant may not be a good idea, but is it really appropriate for government to take away all personal responsibility on the matter and legislate to take control of women’s bodies?
This tendency is attacked by Simon Jenkins in this article (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/06/addiction-criminalising-behaviour-private-responsibility) in which he criticises “the mob craving to bring coercive law into every realm of human behaviour”. Some years ago the same author made the point in an article (now behind the Murdoch paywall) that the gap between the ideal and the illegal was steadily narrowing.
Voltaire and John Stuart Mill insisted there should be an ideological chasm between disapproving an act and wanting it halted. In modern Britain this chasm has become a skip and a jump. Whatever we dislike we require the government to ban...
...There is a case for educating the public to eat, drink and smoke less, drive more carefully and not to rampage through town centres at night. But there must be a limit to the translation of disapproval into repression.And possibly all those so-called defenders of women’s rights who have been getting their knickers in a twist over a laddish marketing campaign by Lees Brewery would be better employed speaking up against such a gross invasion of female self-ownership.

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