We have scientific evidence that drinking during pregnancy damages children. The government must act.
By Kelvin Hopkins MP
Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – damage caused to babies in the womb by mothers consuming alcohol in pregnancy – has been known for decades. British governments have however refused consistently to take the issue seriously and the baleful influence of the drinks industry must be a suspect in this crime.
Now we have scientific evidence demonstrating the connection between alcohol and foetal damage the government must act, unless we are to see thousands more children damaged irreversibly before birth every year.
Following the report this summer of research undertaken by the Medical Research Council's Cambridge laboratory, which concluded that alcohol damages the DNA of unborn children beyond repair, I put down an early day motion in the House of Commons. My EDM drew attention to the research conclusions and called for urgent action by government to deal with the problem and prevent an ongoing tragedy.
It is perhaps useful at this point to step back in time and recall earlier evidence of the problem. Decades ago, the effects of alcohol on babies were observed in a severe form in South Africa where African women working on wine estates were often part paid in free wine. Many babies were born with damaged facial features and there is indeed a particular "look" of a child who has suffered from more acute foetal alcohol syndrome. Mental abilities are affected too, with associated behavioural problems.
At a parliamentary presentation in 2004, a film was shown telling a tragic story of an intelligent woman from California who had in the 1960s chosen to abstain from taking illegal drugs, so popular with her friends, and drunk wine instead. She had a daughter who later seemed to struggle at school and clearly had some impairment of her intellectual abilities which seemed intractable. It was eventually realised that the daughter had suffered foetal damaged caused by her mother's alcohol consumption in pregnancy, a tragedy indeed.
The whole issue of foetal alcohol syndrome was raised in the Lords by Labour peer Lord Mitchell in a thoughtful and well-argued speech on May 12th 2004. The government took no action. I subsequently raised the matter in Commons Questions on a number of occasions, with warm words from ministers but again no action.
By contrast, warnings on drinks containers are normal in the US and many other countries, and increasingly even in France, where absolute abstinence in pregnancy is urged in labelling. There is still no comparable provision in Britain. And in Britain too the problem is more deeply worrying because so many young women indulge in binge drinking and we have a teenage pregnancy rate many times higher than other European countries. It is not difficult to argue that there may be a link between the two. It is also possible that a significant proportion of babies from binge-drinking mothers have been damaged before birth.
Most worrying of all is that the worst damage is done around conception and in early pregnancy when the liver is not yet properly formed and functioning so that the foetus cannot process alcohol in a way that a mature human being can. Thus stopping drinking only when pregnancy is confirmed, which may be some weeks or even months after conception, is too late. Much damage may by then have been done.
There is an urgent need for more research to be done to assess the extent of damage to our country's children. Is it possible that the poor school performance of some of our children and behavioural difficulties in schools are actually the result of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and at conception? Whilst there are often visible effects of foetal alcohol damage where expecting mothers have been heavy drinkers, is it not likely that there is a tapering scale of effects, depending upon the amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy? Thus even moderate consumption might reduce intellectual performance marginally and have some impact on behaviour too.
The only solution is that all women should be urged to drink no alcohol when they are either seeking to conceive or are pregnant. Alternatively, those who drink regularly and choose to continue doing so should make sure they do not conceive during that time. Such strictures could be seen as very unfair to women in that similar constraints do not seem to be required of men. One would however expect husbands and partners to be sympathetic and supportive.
The final responsibility must be that of government. At the very least, all alcoholic beverage containers should be prominently and appropriately labelled. Secondly, all children and especially girls should be given appropriate health education at school warning them of the dangers to any children they may have of consuming alcohol around conception and pregnancy. Thirdly, public information material should be broadcast through the media on a regular basis.
In conclusion, I must emphasise that I am not a killjoy as far as alcohol is concerned. I greatly enjoy wine myself and hopefully drink sensibly. All mature adults should be free to consume alcohol within sensible drinking limits. Only those women of childbearing age seeking to conceive or possibly becoming pregnant should be urged not to drink at all around conception or during pregnancy. Government action is essential and should be taken now. Any delay means more children will be damaged and that must surely weigh on the conscience of ministers who ignore the conclusions of recent research.
Kelvin Hopkins has been Labour MP for Luton North since 1997.
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