Official advice to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy is overly cautious and sexist, academics claim.
Mothers-to-be seen drinking in public face hostility when there is little solid evidence that light or moderate drinking causes significant damage.
While consistent heavy drinking during pregnancy can lead to foetal alcohol syndrome, public policy towards pregnant women has “gone down an overtly precautionary route”, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Ellie Lee, director of the centre of parenting culture studies at the University of Kent.
Dr Lee said it was impossible to establish the safe level of alcohol exposure in pregnancy, but added: “There is now an assumption that a pregnant woman holding a glass of wine is doing something absolutely wrong. Women are being accosted, spoken to and stared at in public.”
Last January Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, issued guidelines warning that women should stop drinking from the moment they found out they were pregnant. The advice was backed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The guidance also recommends that “the safest approach” for a woman who planned to become pregnant was to stop drinking.
Last year almost half of pregnant women said that they continued to drink alcohol despite the guidelines, with about 40 per cent saying they had researched the issue and decided that it was safe to drink.
Last month a study into European women’s drinking habits suggested that those who drank while pregnant were likely to be older, better educated and employed. Five per cent of Italian women, and 4 per cent in Britain, admitted drinking alcohol at least once or twice a week during pregnancy, compared with 0.1 per cent in Sweden.
BPAS and members of the University of Kent will debate the guidelines at a conference at Canterbury Christ Church University today. BPAS wants the advice to be updated, fearing that it risks scaring women into aborting pregnancies because they have drunk alcohol.
A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Midwives said that it was “best to avoid alcohol” while pregnant.