An Historical Warning Unheeded: Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy and FASD

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.

Guidance on drinking alcohol during a pregnancy remains confusing in the UK
Guidance on drinking alcohol during a pregnancy remains confusing in the UK

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.

William Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' (1751)
William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ (1751)

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
  • Microcephaly
  • Neuro-developmental abnormalities
  • Facial anomalies

fasdface

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.

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Seventy Years On: Remembering the Loss of Konigsberg

Seventy years ago this month, the remnants of the German 4th Army were engaged in a fighting retreat across East Prussia as the tide of war turned firmly in favour of the Soviet Red Army. Clearing their remaining concentration camps as they went, the Germans became encircled in the ‘Heligenbeil Pocket’, their final rallying point the historic city of Konigsberg.

By this point Konigsberg lay in ruins. A massive Royal Air Force raid in August 1944 had destroyed a huge percentage of the building stock and caused thousands of fatalities. The subsequent Soviet artillery onslaught that began in January 1945 lay further waste to the great East Prussian capital.

Konigsberg in ruins
Konigsberg in ruins

Konigsberg was renowned across Europe as a leading intellectual centre, best personified by its most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant. It had prestigious universities, extensive libraries and museums, contained the best of Prussian architecture and was an important mercantile centre, home to many Baltic noble families.

On the 9th April 1945, Commandant Otto Lasch surrendered Konigsberg after a devastating three month siege by the Soviets in the hope of preserving the lives of the few remaining citizens of the city. Acting against Hitler’s orders, Lasch was sentenced to death in absentia.

During the Red Army assault, hundreds of thousands of East Prussian civilians made a desperate dash to the West in the hope of survival. Stories of the Soviet brutalities (none of them unfounded) led to a mass population upheaval almost unprecedented in European history.

Many of the East Prussian evacuees had nothing but a horse and cart for transport
Many of the East Prussian evacuees had nothing but a horse and cart for transport

Those trying to escape by ship often fell prey to the merciless Soviet submarines operating in the Baltic; others seeking an overland route towards the Polish border were shot at by Soviet fighter aircraft. These innocent civilians were offered no support by Stalin’s Western allies and the Potsdam agreement subsequently awarded the entire area of East Prussia surrounding Konigsberg to the Soviet Union.

Renamed Kaliningrad, after Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin, the former Konigsberg was transformed into a typically characterless Soviet city, its heritage and history destroyed in a matter of months. The remaining German population was either executed or forcibly evacuated and the beautiful Konigsberg Cathedral and Castle were allowed to lie in ruins as a macabre testimony to Soviet victory.

Konigsberg Castle c.1900. The castle stored thousands of books and works of art
Konigsberg Castle c.1900. The castle stored thousands of books and works of art
Konigsberg Castle in ruins in the 1950s. The remains were blown up on Brezhnev's orders in 1968
Konigsberg Castle in ruins in the 1950s. The remains were blown up on Brezhnev’s orders in 1968

The scourge of Nazism brought considerable devastation to the German people and its territory. Some of it was deserved whilst some of it was unnecessarily violent on the part of the Allied powers. The brutal destruction of Konigsberg and the subsequent violent upheaval of the civilian population of East Prussia surely falls into the latter category when, even after the German surrender, the Soviets were allowed to rampage on without censure.

Seventy years on, it is hoped that Konigsberg is remembered for its extensive contribution to European cultural and intellectual history, and also for the sacrifice it was forced to make because of Nazi and Soviet excesses.