LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s Court of Appeal on Thursday rejected claims that a child born with severe brain damage because her mother drank excessively while pregnant was a victim of crime, a ruling which has important consequences for expectant women.
Lawyers acting for the girl, now aged 7 and known only as CP, had argued that she should be entitled to compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority as her mother, who had an alcohol addiction, had inflicted “grievous bodily harm” by poisoning her.
The girl, now in the care of a local authority which brought the claim, was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) that can cause severe learning difficulties and growth problems. Media reports said the mother had been drinking eight cans of strong lager and half a bottle of vodka a day.
Three Court of Appeal judges accepted that CP was poisoned and had suffered harm, but ruled that under English law a fetus was not considered a person and so the mother could not have committed a crime.
“We have held that a mother, who is pregnant and who drinks to excess despite knowledge of the potential harmful consequences to the child of doing so, is not guilty of a criminal offense under our law,” Justice Colman Treacy said.
There were 252 diagnoses of FASD in England in 2012-2013. Campaigners said a contrary decision could have led to pregnant women being liable for criminal offences for a growing list of activities which could risk their babies’ health.
“This is an extremely important ruling for women everywhere,” Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and Rebecca Schiller, co-chairman of Birthrights which promotes pregnant women’s human rights, said in a joint statement.
“A small number of women drink very heavily throughout their pregnancy. Their problems will not be helped either by the threat of prosecution ... or through ever more warnings about the dangers of drinking while pregnant.”
However, pro-life groups were dismayed by the decision, saying they hoped the Supreme Court, Britain’s highest judicial body, would overturn the decision.
“It seems that the Court of Appeal has based its judgment in this case on the lack of ‘independence’ of the unborn child,” charity Life said in a statement.
“But this is absurd; that is to say, it leads to absurd conclusions. There cannot be one law for dependent unborn children and another for dependent born ones.”
Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky