Stone the crows! Booze upsets society more than bulk.

In the north of England a young woman who, despite advice, drank heavily while pregnant and gave birth to a disabled child is waiting on a court’s judgement on a charge of attempted manslaughter.[i] The test case is more about creating a right to victim’s compensation for the child than punishing the mother. But it does raise questions of individual responsibility and the state’s obligation to pay for the impact of an individual’s utter indifference to the consequences of her behaviour. In the United States, neonatal drug taking is already a civil offence in 17 states and earlier this year Tennessee made it a criminal matter.[ii]

Criminalising what is at best wanton irresponsibility upsets the rights industry. For a start, it would empower the state to order women about in order to prevent them wallowing in alcohol and drugs. It is less a slippery slope than a stroll to making it illegal to drink at all while pregnant. From there it is but a step to banning them from eating sushi and blue cheese. And, if it is accepted that what pregnant women eat and drink is a matter for the state, how long will it be before there are claims about abortion is as well? [iii]

Being old blokes the Crows make it a rule not to tell young women what they can do with their bodies – and see circumstances where the state can accomplish anything by attempting to prevent self-harm by the stupid as rare indeed. As Nicky Priaulx puts it:

The idea that criminal measures may be powerful in deterring women from engaging in such behaviour would seem to be founded upon some fallacy of choice and rational risk-benefit: that pregnant women who engage in such risky practices will weigh the risk of imprisonment and change their behaviour as a result.[iv]

However, the standard rights industry argument – that the state is to blame for not providing pregnant drunks and drug users with enough counselling “to support them through a healthy pregnancy” – is just nonsense.[v]

As Northern Territory Attorney General John Elferink put it, when he floated the idea of prosecuting or “restraining” women who drink dangerously while pregnant: “I lay the blame for that squarely on the feet of a passive welfare system that is expecting nothing from the recipients of that welfare.”[vi]

This debate isn’t new, rolling around every decade or so – there were suggestions in the 1980s that women who drink and do drugs while pregnant should lose welfare payments.[vii] But what confuses the Crows is why punishing alcohol-abusing women is a perennial, and why pursuing prosecutions against parents who do their children harm by allowing them to be obese isn’t.

No one seems to know the number of babies born with foetal alcohol syndrome disorder in the general Australian population, but one to three live births is quoted as an indicative global number.[viii] However, the Bureau of Statistics is quite confident on the number of kids who are overweight or obese, putting it at 24 per cent of boys and 27 per cent of girls aged 5-17.[ix] And Monash University predicts that “on the basis of present trends we can predict that by the time they reach the age of 20 our kids will have a shorter life expectancy than earlier generations simply because of obesity.”[x] So why is this not as bad as drinking while pregnant? In a couple of Victorian cases it is – the state has taken obese children from their parents.[xi]

But heaven forfend that anybody assume that parents are responsible for overweight kids in general. It seems the argument that obese adults are victims applies to their kids. As Professor Louise Bauer from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead commented on the Victorian cases:

The reason we are seeing more obesity now in the general community than we did, say, several decades ago is because the broader environment in which we live makes it harder to make easy choices, healthy choices around food and physical activity. Clearly, parents are important; just as in adulthood, the individuals adults are to some extent responsible for what is eaten and the amount of activity. And yet, those very same families are affected just as the rest of us are by the broader environment in which we live. If junk foods are marketed, if it’s hard to know what’s in the food you’re eating, if there aren’t easy – if there isn’t easy access to public transport, if the broader environment in which you live makes it hard to be physically active and to make healthy food choices, it’s going to be a lot harder for some families than it might be for others.[xii]

So, pregnant women don’t drink up – but as the kids grow up they can tuck in. And if they get fat, well, it’s society’s fault isn’t it?


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[i] Owen Bowcott, “Foetal damage caused by alcohol ‘equivalent to attempted manslaughter’ “ The Guardian, November 6

[ii] Katie McDonough, Salon, July 12 @ http://goo.gl/sRcw6O recovered on November 15

[iii] Beverely Turner, “Criminalising pregnant mothers who drink could turn women into working wombs,”, November 5

[iv] Nicky Priaulx, “Given a foetus ‘personhood’ will have serious consequences for women,” The Conversation November 7 @ http://goo.gl/FIyD65

[v] “Criminalising drinking during pregnancy: no cheers,” The Guardian November 6

[vi] ABC News, “Drinking alcohol durinhg pregnancy targeted as NT Government considers rights of unborn child,” March 14 @ http://goo.gl/82qts3 recovered on November 15

[vii] Dawn E Johnsen, “The creation of fetal rights: conflicts with women’s constitutional rights to liberty, privacy and equal protection,” Indiana University, faculty publication 905 (1986) @ http://goo.gl/tCQTPY recovered on November 15

[viii] National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee, “Addressing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Australia,” 2012 @ http://goo.gl/bHPcFj recovered on November 15

[ix] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Gender Indicators: Overweight/Obesity, January 2013 @ http://goo.gl/2AaBym recovered on November 15

[x] Monash Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, “Breakthrough treatments for diabetes and health sciences” nd @ http://goo.gl/ARfZ2 recovered on November 15

[xi] Adrian Lowe, “Is this child abuse? The courts think so,” The Age, July 12

[xii] Leigh Sales, “Is childhood obesity parental neglect? ABC TV Lateline July 12 2012 recovered on November 15