Radio 4’s excellent PM programme is currently asking listeners to suggest things that politics could do to improve their lives.
In today’s Guardian, “Stella” gives a moving account of living with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). It’s treated as a combination of health problem, social problem and personal responsibilty, but some of the solutions are political.
The depressing background to this article is the clumsy attempt by a cash-strapped local authority to extract money from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board to help pay for the support of child born with FAS.
Whilst this has lead to a welcome and overdue highlighting of this syndrome which, according to the article, may affect 1 in 100 newborns, the focus has been on the potential criminalization of women who drink excessivly during pregnancy, although no-one is actually proposing this.
The answer to the local authority’s problem is political, not legal. Adequate funds should be made available to ensure that children with FAS receive the support they need through schools, health care, social care and families. Parents who have a child with FAS should be supported so as to try and avoid second and subsequent children being affected.
Given that children with FAS become adults with problems ranging from learing difficulties to behaviours that lead them to being over-represented amongst the prison population, the case for adequate early funding ought to be a no-brainer for even the most heard-hearted and out-of-touch Tory grandee.
Prevention is better than cure. There is no cure, but FAS, unlike may birth defects, is totally preventable.
Readers’ comments on this article make curious and, at times, disturbing reading. Many commentators are at pains to make a distinction between “safe” levels of social drinking, heavy drinking, binge drinking and alcoholism (the case that triggered this debate involved someone who was imbibing industrial quatities of alcohol on a daily basis throughout her pregnancy).
“Safe” levels of drinking, especially in pregnancy are difficult to quantify. There’s the confusion between units of alcohol and how these translate into physical quantities. There’s the problem of different drinks having different strengths. And even if you do get the maths right, there are physical differences between individuals that can affect the way their bodies process alcohol. Surely the rational choice is abstention for the duration of the pregnancy and, as one commentator put it, if you can’t give up alcohol for 9 months to protect the health of your child, then maybe you’ve got a problem.
Alcoholics and heavy drinkers, especially those who may not think that they have a problem, should be offered specialist, but sensitive, support. Most mothers, regardless of their circumstances, want the best for their children. Yes, there will alaways be a few who are indifferent to their circumstances or who reject offers of help and for these few there will never be easy answers.
A child with FAS is a personal tragedy for the individual and their family, but it’s one that affects us all and should concern us all and that makes it political. More publicity, more information, more education, more research and targetted support ought to lead to a situation where drinking during pregnancy is as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving. We may not be able to eliminate FAS, but thoughtful long-term public initiatives can certainly reduce it and can certainly mitigate the effect for those affected by it. And that’s politics.