Any ruling that accepted that this mother had committed a crime would be taking us into dangerous territoryby Jessica Abrahams / November 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
Drinking alcohol to excess while pregnant is “on all fours with manslaughter.” That is the view of lawyers currently involved in a criminal injuries compensation claim at the Court of Appeal, on behalf of a child with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, an umbrella term for developmental problems caused by maternal drinking. A ruling in favour of the claimant would involve the court accepting that the girl’s alcoholic mother committed a crime under the Offences Against the Person Act.
Although a test case in the UK, this is not the first accusation of its kind. From the classical period through to the present day, mothers have often found themselves in the firing line when children are stillborn or suffer from disabilities—whether it is her negative thoughts or bad posture, her diet or the condition of her womb that is thought to have caused it.
An article in an 1837 issue of The Lancet refers to cases of babies being born with injuries to the head—which could be the result of the “criminal act” of the mother compressing the child’s head between her thighs during labour. Women were convicted of this crime, it notes, despite the difficulty in determining whether the act was accidental or intentional—or if it had occurred at all. And such cases continue today. In some parts of Latin America, women who have miscarriages can and often do find themselves accused of murder. In the United States, a report published last year by the campaign group National Advocates for Pregnant Women documented hundreds of cases of women being arrested or detained over concerns about their behaviour during pregnancy. Women in some US states can be imprisoned for using drugs during pregnancy, and can be charged with homicide if the baby is stillborn. Women have been convicted of abuse in these cases even when the child is born healthy. In 2010, a pregnant woman in Iowa who fell down the stairs was arrested for attempted feticide.
Outside the law courts, it is a common complaint among pregnant women that they are transformed into “public property”—that friends and strangers alike feel entitled to criticise and comment on their behaviour. Some report being admonished by strangers for eating certain foods, wearing high heels or exercising. Recall, not so long ago, the case of Lea-Ann Ellison, who found herself vilified for continuing to weightlift while pregnant, with criticisms posted online…