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Blood alcohol tests in pregnancy: what do women lose when their bodies are scrutinised like this?

When women are increasingly scrutinised and shamed for the way they tend to actual or potential foetuses within them, it is not paranoid at all to feel this legislation as the cold hand of a threat laid on women’s backs.

I have lots of good memories of my first trimester of pregnancy. Critically, I didn’t know I was pregnant, so my memories include things like downing pints of Guinness with my boyfriend and our mates, and slamming around on the student union dance floor to Ante Up. When I learned I was pregnant and first considered the possibility that I might not have an abortion, one of the things I blurted out to my GP was: “I can’t have this baby, I’ve drunk so much.” And my sensible, kind GP replied, kindly and sensibly: “That doesn’t matter.”

She was right. It didn’t matter, just as for most women it doesn’t matter. About six months later, I had a perfectly healthy baby who has grown up to be a perfectly healthy child and now a perfectly healthy teenager. Increasingly, this attitude is not deemed to be enough. A new BMJ study urges that “new policy and interventions are required to reduce alcohol prevalence both prior to and during pregnancy”, despite the same report conceding that “most women who consume alcohol do so at lower levels where the offspring growth and development effects are less well understood”. It concludes that there is “urgent need for a biological marker of gestational alcohol use” to counter the vagaries of self-reporting in large-scale population studies.

In other words, we don’t know that pregnant women’s general level of drinking is causing any problems to either the women themselves or their babies, but we should act as though it does just in case, and we should find ways to monitor women at the level of their blood and piss in order to collect the evidence to justify this. The natural solution to any problem, after all, always seems to be the extension of greater public controls over women’s bodies: if severe alcohol consumption is bad for foetal health, then why shouldn’t we try to stop all potentially pregnant women from drinking? We gain healthy babies, and we lose… Well, what do we lose?

The idea of women as humans with our own wishes, desires and ethical intuitions has always been precarious at best. We are understood socially as wives or as mothers, small orbs of pale fire catching our meaning from the masculine suns we circuit, amanuenses to others who somehow count more than we do, who are deemed to be entitled to not only our unpaid work, but also to our affections and even to our bodies. And women do not get to refuse these demands lightly.

When it comes to sex, for example, the generally accepted social standards on what is a “yes” and what is a “no” undergo a massive, and very specific, revision. In order to prove that an act of intercourse was an assault, a woman must convince police, CPS and eventually jury that she refused in a such a way that her rapist could not “reasonably believe” that she consented. As the linguist Deborah Cameron points out in The Myth of Mars and Venus, this is not at all how yes and no function in regular conversation: “in everyday contexts, refusing is never done by ‘just saying no’. Most refusals do not even contain the word ‘no’. Yet in non-sexual situations, no one seems to have any trouble understanding them.”

A similar logic prevails when it comes to pregnancy. In any other situation where one human’s life depends on the physical sustenance provided by another’s body, we accept that the second party has a right of refusal – even if it means the death of the first. Blood donation is voluntary. So too bone marrow. Even post-mortem organ donation is opt-in (although that will change from December this year in Wales, at least). But when the body in question is female, and the one reliant on her is a foetus, suddenly the stakes change: she cannot simply refuse, but must instead convince two doctors (twice as many as need to approve any other procedure) that continuing the pregnancy would do her more harm than ending it.

I’ve given birth, and I’ve given blood, and one of those things is substantially more traumatic and life changing than the other; but then, one of them is only possible for a female body, so the effects don’t seem to be considered in the same way. And this issue of possibility is at the centre of the discussion about drinking and pregnancy, because most women – post-puberty, pre-menopause – have the possibility of becoming pregnant. Only 55% of pregnancies are planned, which means that pretty much every fertile woman is encroached on by that BMJ edict to reduce drinking “prior to pregnancy”. After all, we’re all just one collision of gametes away from conception. Step away from the gin bottle, ma’am.

It is curious that the concern is only to control women, rather than (say) address the general boozing culture of which both sexes partake. But the monitoring of female behaviour runs deeper than a little sexist censoriousness. It is written in our laws. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – still on the statute and still the basis of abortion law in Britain – includes these words:

“Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony…”

The language is old and ungainly, but what it means is this: it remains a criminal offence for a woman to attempt to end her own pregnancy; it remains a criminal offense for another person to supply the means to end a pregnancy, outside of the specific restrictions of the Abortion Act, whether or not the woman is actually pregnant. This is the legislation under which a woman in Northern Ireland (where the Abortion Act does not apply) is currently being prosecuted for helping her daughter to obtain an abortion.

Alcohol elevates the risk of miscarriage. It is, arguably, a “poison or other noxious thing”. When women are increasingly scrutinised and shamed for the way they tend to actual or potential foetuses within them, it is not paranoid at all to feel this legislation as the cold hand of a threat laid on our backs. As long as we are treated as potential mothers by default – in our laws and in our culture – women will be denied the dignities and freedoms that we call human rights. Nothing could matter more.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.