Criminalising Pregnancy is simply Misogyny

(Originally published on Mumsnet as a guest post)

Right now, the Court of Appeal is deciding whether or not a council in the North-West of England can hold the mother of a six-year-old girl born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome criminally liable under the Offences against Persons Act of 1861.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term for a number of diagnoses that result from prenatal exposure to alcohol. This exposure can cause problems with memory, attention, speech and language and behaviour, a weakened immune system, and damage to the liver, kidneys and heart. The long-term consequences include addiction, chronic unemployment, poverty, depression, suicide, and the criminalisation of the child themselves.

It is a horrible condition. I know, because my nephew has FASD. I have seen him struggle with his physical and emotional health. He finds everyday activities difficult, and his behaviour is very challenging. It is heartbreaking, watching him trying to navigate life with intellectual and physical impairments that could have been prevented. He finds school difficult because he cannot cope with unstructured learning, such as break time. He requires a very strict routine with clear instructions and finds choices difficult. He also has physical disabilities and needs a very strict diet – another control on his life that he does not fully understand.

As an aunt, I don’t want any woman to drink alcohol whilst pregnant because I worry about the consequences for their children. As a feminist, I am utterly opposed to the criminalisation of women’s bodies and any attempts to limit women’s reproductive freedom.

Criminalising mothers who give birth to babies with FASD would do nothing to support women, and would make accessing services even more difficult. How many women would inform their midwife of their alcohol consumption if they believe they’ll end up in prison? Even if women were to approach their midwife or doctor, there aren’t enough programs in place to help them. How many beds are there in rehab facilities that are appropriate for women with substance misuse issues? How many are there that cater for women with other children? I refuse to believe that criminalisation would be followed by investment in mental health services. Already, a vast number of women in prison are there as a consequence of trauma, and criminalising pregnancy would increase that number.

As an aunt, I don’t want any woman to drink alcohol whilst pregnant because I worry about the consequences for their children. As a feminist, I am utterly opposed to the criminalisation of women’s bodies and any attempts to limit women’s reproductive freedom.

The most frustrating thing is that there are so many other things we could do. Research has shown us how to minimise the effects of FASD. For example, we know that access to a healthy diet has a positive impact, which is why poverty remains a major risk factor. This isn’t because women living in poverty are more likely to misuse alcohol – it’s because a healthy diet can minimise the effects of alcohol on a developing foetus.

We know how to prevent FASD. It requires a properly funded NHS to provide support for women with substance misuse issues. Access to a midwife and GP who understand addiction and its causes is the most important prevention method. We can’t see alcoholism in isolation. Amongst women, it is frequently linked to trauma following male violence – and we need a social care network that understands the reality and consequences of this.

This is why criminalising women is not just nonsensical – it’s misogynistic.

Despite the fact that our economy would be destroyed if women withdrew all their labour, society still believes that women have less economic value than men. The control of women’s reproduction – from access to birth control to abortion, from prenatal care to maternity leave – is about controlling women’s labour. Preventing the “bad” women – the drinkers, the drug takers – from giving birth means that they are free to do low-paying jobs, rather than depending on the welfare state. Of course, criminalising them is much easier than fixing the root of the problem by providing better health and social care, and it suits those who should be stepping up to the plate: the local council, which is refusing to take responsibility for its failure to support a vulnerable woman appropriately during her pregnancy, and our society, which is refusing to take responsibility for the harm caused by misogyny and violence against women.

The only effective way to tackle FASD is to create a culture in which women have equal value to men, where male violence is eradicated, and in which women have access to free healthcare without judgment.

I don’t want any child to suffer the way my nephew suffers. I also don’t want to see women imprisoned for substance misuse. If we genuinely cared about women with substance misuse issues and children born with FASD, we’d be standing on the barricades demanding better investment in social care, the NHS and education – that’s where the support and intervention for pregnant women should be. They won’t get this support if they’re forced into the criminal justice system.

My nephew deserves better than the criminalisation of his mother. And his mother deserves better too.

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day


In the US, the month of October is recognised as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. It came into being in 1988 and was designed both as a remembrance of those babies lost but also as a way of increasing knowledge and awareness around the issues of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancies, still births, SIDS and other causes of infant loss.

Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. It was founded by Robyn Bear to give all parents one day to grieve for their babies. Bear asks everyone, in every time zone, to light a candle at 7 pm for one hour to give a wave of light in memory of the babies lost too soon.

I will be lighting candles for my friends. For Lissie. For Jaime. For Sarah. For Rena. For Mira. For Catherine. For Cheryl. For all mothers whose babies were taken too soon. I love you.