Women are being unfairly alarmed by official guidelines that warn them to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy, experts claim.
Some mothers-to-be may even be having an abortion because they are worried they have damaged their unborn child by drinking too much, it is claimed.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, maternal rights campaign group Birthrights and academics specialising in parenting say official advice on drinking in pregnancy is too prescriptive.
Revised guidelines that came into force in January 2016 are not based on reliable evidence, they say. The advice, endorsed by the four UK nations’ chief medical officers, deleted a longstanding reference to pregnant women potentially having one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week while expecting and instead said that they should not drink at all.
“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,” said Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPAS, the contraception and abortion charity.
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“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.”
Ellie Lee, director of Kent University’s centre for parenting culture studies, said the advice means pregnant women also shun social occasions unnecessarily.
“As proving ‘complete safety’ [of drinking in pregnancy] 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. And the exclusion of women from an ordinary activity on the basis of ‘precaution’ can more properly be called sexist than benign,” Lee added.
Last year’s revised guidelines followed the first in-depth UK review of the evidence on drinking in pregnancy since 2008. It concluded that “definitive evidence, particularly on the effects of low-level consumption [on a baby’s health] remains elusive”. Despite that, it nevertheless recommended that: “If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.”
The NHS’s start 4 life website, which promotes healthy behaviour, says: “What you drink, your baby drinks too. Play safe and cut out alcohol.”
Jennie Bristow, senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, criticised the negative effects of advice to mothers to be. “Does it simply make for healthier pregnancies or is it scaring women about their bodies and their babies? Promoting fear is not a good way to care for pregnant women.”
The guidelines state that: “Alcohol, like a numbr of drugs, is a teratogen, which means something that can disturb the deveopment of a fetus. Teratogens may cause a birth defect, or may halt the pregnancy.” The risks to the child also include the child being born prematurely or very small or having behavioural problems.
The Royal College of Midwives believes that any woman who is or is trying to become pregnant should shun alcohol altogether. “Our message [is]… that there is no evidence that any level of consumption is safe for the growing baby,” it said when the guidelines came out last year.