A Labour politician has urged the UK government to improve its guidance for pregnant women when it comes to alcohol consumption. Bill Esterson, MP for Sefton Central, has called for the government to urge women to avoid any alcohol during their pregnancy and is seeking an improvement labelling on alcohol to reflect this. It is worrying that the NHS is still suggesting that a pregnant woman can safely drink two units of alcohol twice a week.
Esterson is right. Women should not drink at all during their pregnancies. Even small amounts of alcohol can affect the foetus and lead to a number of conditions know collectively as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). The most extreme case of FASD is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which severely impairs the physical and mental development of children.
Few countries have properly addressed FASD, both in terms of its causes and management. Canada is a rare exception and leads the world in preventative guidance, diagnosis and case management. Yet, despite centuries of warnings from the most prominent thinkers, there is still some confusion in many countries about how much women are ‘allowed’ to drink during their pregnancies and whether mothers alone should be blamed for the disabilities of their children.
The Book of Judges in the Old Testament carries the following biblical warning:
The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said ‘you are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean’.
By the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher Aristotle had noticed the affects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. In his Problemata he exclaims:
Foolish and drunken and harebrained women most often bring forth children like unto themselves, morose and languid.
The Royal College of Physicians, seeking to put a more scientific slant on the issue, made the following statement in 1726:
Children born to alcoholic mothers are weak, feeble and distempered.
Writing in the 18th century, English novelist Henry Fielding asked:
What must become of the infant conceived in gin? with the poisonous distillations of which it is nourished both in the womb and at the breast.
These are just selection of some of the observations of the foremost thinkers of their time and yet it was not until 1973 that FAS was clinically diagnosed by K.L. Jones & D.W. Smith in their work, ‘Pattern of Malformation in Offspring of Chronic Alcoholic Mothers’.
Still in many countries today drinking during one’s pregnancy is not really taboo. Yes, heavy drinking maybe, but the idea that a woman can drink ‘in moderation’ still holds sway in many communities and government inaction is a significant cause of this. Even some medical professionals are vague on the issue of FASD, preferring to choose other diagnoses such as ASD and ADHD to explain child misbehaviour and learning difficulties.
Many people think that the concept of avoiding alcohol during pregnancy is a new one. Yet for millennia experts from various scholarly fields have recognised the damage alcohol consumption in the womb can do to an unborn child.
Women need to be categorically informed that any type of alcohol consumption during their pregnancy can lead to the following conditions for their child:
- Growth retardation
- Neuro-developmental abnormalities
- Facial anomalies
This is not scaremongering but a warning from history, one which in many countries has been unheeded for centuries. The time for zero tolerance and a strict stance from politicians and medical professionals alike has arrived. Only then can we blame the mothers for failing to protect their foetuses.