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Alcohol abstention advice to pregnant women is wrong, say campaigners

Campaigners claim alcohol abstention advice to pregnant women is overly cautious

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Health officials and experts are wrong to tell women that they should completely abstain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy, according to campaigners.

Telling women that small quantities of alcohol in pregnancy can cause irreparable damage to a developing foetus has no basis in evidence and can cause needless anxiety, claimed academics and women's advocates speaking at a conference in Canterbury, Kent.

The conference, Policing pregnancy: who should be a mother?, is a collaboration between the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) charity, the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS), maternal rights campaign group Birthrights, and engaging sociology.

Currently, pregnant women are warned that even light alcohol consumption can cause problems for them and long-term harm to their foetus, such as stunted growth, and eventual learning difficulties and behavioural problems. Warnings also include the possibility of liver damage to the baby and increased risk of the mother having a miscarriage.

In January 2016, the UK's four chief medical officers endorsed updated guidance advising pregnant women to stop drinking alcohol completely rather than the previous advice which said consuming one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week was acceptable.

BPAS and its fellow conference organisations said this change to official guidance was not the result of changes in the evidence base, but was made in part because there were concerns that the previous guidance may have been read as implying a recommendation to drink alcohol at low levels during pregnancy.

Speaking at the conference Ellie Lee, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, said: 'Evidence that suggests the odd drink, or even more than that, has no impact on child outcomes is interpreted as insufficiently robust and any level of drinking is now associated with possible harm. As proving 'complete safety' is entirely impossible where does this leave pregnant women?

'The scrutiny and oversight of their behaviour the official approach invites is not benign. It creates anxiety and impairs ordinary social interaction.'

Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the BPAS, said: 'We need to think hard about how risk is communicated to women on issues relating to pregnancy. There can be real consequences to overstating evidence, or implying certainty when there isn't any.

'Doing so can cause women needless anxiety and alarm – sometimes to the point that they consider ending an unplanned but not unwanted pregnancy because of fears they have caused irreparable harm.'

Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, said: 'Our advice has always been clear and unequivocal; if you are thinking of becoming pregnant or are pregnant, then it is best to avoid alcohol.

'Cumulative and regular alcohol consumption in pregnancy could have an impact on the health and wellbeing of mother and baby.'

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