The UK Chief Medical Officer said today that “there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink while you are pregnant.”
This is part of the roll out of draft guidance that has been made available for public consultation through April 2016. This statement brings the UK in line, finally, with most major advanced countries. For example, in 2005 the US Surgeon General stated categorically that “A pregnant woman should not drink alcohol during pregnancy.”
Already the naysayers are chiming in, talking about a ‘nanny state’ and preparing to dismiss this guidance based on what they say is a lack of evidence.
I have some questions for these critics. Would you allow your child to go careening downhill on a tricycle without a helmet? After all, the chances the child might fall depends on many factors and even if he or she did fall, they might not actually suffer brain damage. Would you drive around town with your infant unstrapped into a car seat, since the chances of an accident are slim and whether or not this might result in irreversible brain injury depends on the speed, type of impact and other variables? Would you put alcohol directly into your baby’s bottle?
Of course not. We take precautions to protect our children. No responsible parent wants to knowingly harm a child.
Our 11-year old son has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. His birth mother probably never imagined that the alcohol she swallowed would burn its mark onto the rest of the child’s life. True, there was a chance he might have been all right. But he wasn’t okay. Alcohol is a teratogen, “an agent or factor which causes malformation of an embryo.” Specifically, it can cause damage to the developing central nervous system and other systems. Prenatal exposure to alcohol caused our son irreparable damage and set him on his path with severe challenges long before he first saw daylight.
As you peruse today’s news, you won’t be hearing any sort of detail about the lifelong effects of this brain damage.
You won’t hear people talking about the anguish parents feel, knowing that parts of their child’s brain were damaged forever before he took his first breath.
You won’t hear about the heartbreak of a child who faces debilitating confusion and frustration every day of her life, because her mis-wired brain leaves her unable to respond appropriately to the daily stresses and strains of life.
You won’t hear about the tears of parent and child when the pre-teen’s ‘fight and flight’ part of the brain wrestles control from the higher levels of functioning, leading to world class tantrums, confusion, sometimes aggression.
You won’t hear about a young adult locked up in prison for failing to understand the consequences of his or her actions due to brain injury inflicted by a pregnant woman who thought ‘just one more’ might not matter yet again.
You won’t hear about an adult who struggles day after day just to function in our complex society, some days unable even to gather himself or herself enough to try to talk with others, unable to manage bills, friendships, work.
You’ll hear mostly about a bunch of twenty-somethings who don’t want to face the ever-afters, but who just want to party. You’ll hear that tragically some people cannot simply stop and sadly this is true (but you won’t hear, I will bet, suggestions for any increased support for those who need help breaking their addictions). You’ll hear from interest groups who want the good times to keep rolling cash into their tills.
I am no saint, and this could happen to any woman who drinks, has sex, and doesn’t use reliable contraception. The point is not to have a ‘blame & shame’ game. The point is that these guidelines do matter. Immensely. Women need to understand. The guidelines should not be dismissed. They need to be amplified. They need to be posted in pubs and on labels. Kids need to be taught this in school. The message needs to be unambiguous.
If you would not let your child play with an electric socket, if you would not let your child climb high in a flimsy tree or tread out far into the waves at the beach, you should welcome the clarity of today’s announcement. The UK’s chief medical officer has said you can avoid with 100% certainty one possible horrible outcome. The same cannot be said even if your kid wears his helmet or is strapped into her car seat.
Why wouldn’t you take this precaution if you possibly could? If you were to spend a day in our child’s shoes, we are sure you would agree having a ‘mocktail’ is but a small price to pay for securing the best chances for your tiny loved one’s lifetime.
It is a proud day for the UK government. I would add that government has a concurrent responsibility now to put in place further support, advice and recommendations for addressing the needs of those with FASD. There is a large segment of the population struggling with this disability minute by minute, and education for and outreach to medical professionals, educators, and other elements of society is also overdue. Let’s not quibble over this guidance. Let’s get onto addressing the needs of this innocent and hurting segment of society as an urgent and overdue matter.
Please send your thoughts and advice on the Chief Medical Officer’s guidance here, via the public consultation document. Those affected by FASD must be heard on this and related matters.