Drinking heavily while pregnant is, of course, a very bad idea. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is a serious condition and it has long been accepted that alcohol abuse while pregnant can lead to birth defects and behavioural problems.
Having the odd drink while pregnant, on the other hand, poses no risk to either mother or child. It's good for the ticker, relieves stress and there is not a shred of evidence that light drinking can lead to any of the problems associated with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Consequently, pregnant women have always been advised to limit themselves to no more than one or two drinks, once or twice a week.
Or rather they were until May last year, when the Department of Health announced that there was no safe amount of alcohol that could be drunk during pregnancy and that the government was now advising expectant mothers to drink no alcohol whatsoever.
"Our advice is simple: avoid alcohol if pregnant or trying to conceive."Since then, warning labels have been slapped on millions of bottles of booze with an unambiguous message that any consumption of alcohol by a pregnant woman was verboten. Unacceptable. Dangerous.
What led to this change of policy? Bugger all, as everyone involved admitted:
The Department of Health said the revision was not based on new scientific evidence but was needed to help ensure that women did not underestimate the risks to their baby.Ten months later, NICE followed the government's lead, even though it, too, believed that occasional light drinking posed no hazard.
As the Beeb reported:
It brings NICE in line with government advice and replaces previous guidance saying small daily amounts were fine.Only the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists held firm and maintained their position that small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy were harmless, basing their opinion on the quaint idea that medical advice should be based on fact rather than scare-mongering.
However, NICE concedes there is no evidence to support the change.
Yesterday, however, some evidence finally appeared. An epidemiological study found that the children of those who abstained from alcohol performed rather worse than those whose mother had had the occasional drink.
The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found boys born to light drinkers were 40% less likely to have conduct problems and 30% less likely to be hyperactive than those whose mothers had abstained.
They also scored more highly on vocabulary tests and on identifying colours, shapes, letters and numbers.
This study pissed on the government's bonfire somewhat, and led to headlines such as:
Blessing of a weekly tipple in pregnancy
Light drinking in pregnancy may be good for baby boys, says study Light Drinking During Pregnancy May Benefit Baby
Light drinking in pregnancy may be good for baby boys, says study
Light drinking when pregnant may lead to calm babies, says study
Let's be clear. This study, though large, is not conclusive and the idea that taking alcohol during pregnancy reduces the risk of behavioural and learning disorders remains a hypothesis. Be that as it may, it does seem to refute the 'no safe level of alcohol' theory. And since the UK government's zero tolerance advice was based on no evidence in the first place, will the doctors now be changing their advice?
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, said: "We are concerned that the findings from the UCL study may lull women into a false sense of security and give them the green light that there is no problem with drinking during pregnancy. This is not the case."
These are weasel words. No one disputes the risks from heavy drinking during pregnancy but that is not the issue here. The question is whether moderate, occasional alcohol consumption poses a risk and this study clearly shows that it does not.
"The BMA believes the simplest and safest advice is for women not to drink alcohol during pregnancy."
That's because the BMA considers pregnant women to be a set of cretins who will go on a bender if it veers, even for a minute, away from the 'demon drink' rhetoric. Total abstinance may be the "simplest" advice, but is it the safest? According to this study, the safest advice is to have an occasional drink. Apparently the BMA is prepared to disregard the evidence, and resent its very publication, because it fucks up their simple but completely unsubstantiated zero tolerance policy.
But why should I give a damn? I'm not a woman and I'm never going to be pregnant. There might be a libertarian argument here but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it and I don't expect people to take to the streets to defend a woman's right to relax with a glass of vino while in the family way.
But I do expect medical advice to be based on facts. The lesson here is, once again, that the medical establishment can no longer be trusted to give advice without exaggerating or fabricating risks to scare the proles into submission. That is not advice. That is propaganda.
At the heart of the total abstinance policy is a contemptuous attitude towards pregnant women; that they cannot handle shades of grey; that unless something is defined as 'good' or 'evil', the plebs will not understand it. Beneath the talk about 'sending out the right message' is the fact that doctors are being told to lie to their patients about a risk that just does not exist.
9% of pregnant women drink above the old guidelines and there is doubtless a hard core of stupid bitches who binge their way through pregnancy. These are the people the doctors want to reach and they are prepared to mislead and stigmatise the other 91% to do so. But common sense dictates that if these women were ignoring the old guidelines, they will ignore the new ones. And so the campaign won't work because only the health conscious will pay any attention.
They are only guidelines, of course, and women can take them or leave them. But be under no illusion, if it was practical and enforceable, the doctors would be pushing for the government to make it illegal for pregnant women to touch a drop of alcohol. I'd take even money on a law being passed in the next five years to make it a crime to sell alcohol to a pregnant woman (as it is in parts of America).
For the time being, they will have to settle for a programme of denormalisation - to make drinking any quantity of alcohol socially unacceptable. However well intentioned, the outcome will be that women who are doing nothing wrong feel anxious, ashamed and guilty. They will be glared at, lectured to and abused. In Louisiana a few years ago, a man shot a pregnant woman dead because he saw her smoking a cigarette. It's a strange way to express your concern about health but that's how these things end.
Like I say, I'm not a woman so this won't affect me. But these quacks make it up as they go along. That's all I'm saying.