Advising women not to drink when pregnant is “sexist” and causes “needless anxiety”, senior academics have said.
Pregnancy charities and researchers have called for a change to the “alarmist” official Government guidelines, which warn expectant mothers to avoid alcohol completely.
They say the policy has no basis in evidence and ends up “stigmatising” women and excluding them from society.
Studies have shown that consistent heavy drinking during pregnancy can result in foetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause physical developmental and learning difficulties.
Women are being accosted, spoken to and started at in publicDr Ellie Lee, University of Kent
However, there is not robust evidence that light to moderate drinking, or even one-off episodes of binge drinking, causes any long-term damage.
Experts at the University of Kent and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) are claiming that public policy towards pregnant women has “gone down an overtly precautionary route” and that the Government “needs to be honest” about the evidence.
But last night professional bodies defended the current position.
Last year the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, was accused of scaremongering when she issued updated formal advice on alcohol consumption for all adults, reducing the recommended weekly intake from 21 to 14 units for men, and advising pregnant women not to touch alcohol at all.
The previous guidelines had expecting women not avoid alcohol but noted that if they did choose to drink, they could not consume more than 2 units once or twice a week.
Dame Sally Davies has been accused of scaremongering
Dr Ellie Lee, Director of the Centre of Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, said the “exclusion of women from an ordinary activity on the basis of a precaution” was “sexist”.
“Public discourse has become very hostile and there is now an assumption that a pregnant woman holding a glass of wine is doing something absolutely wrong,” she said.
“Women are being accosted, spoken to and started at in public.
“People assume that just because you have had one drink you’ve had a bottle of vodka for breakfast.”
She said it was impossible to establish the safe level of exposure to alcohol during pregnancy.
BPAS is also campaigning for a change in the tone of the advice on the basis that it may be needlessly scaring women into aborting pregnancies because of fears that a few heavy nights out will have caused the foetus serious harm.
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Clare Murphy, the organisation’s director of external affairs, said: “There can be real consequences to overstating evidence, or implying certainty when there isn’t any.
“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.
“But just as importantly, it assumes women cannot be trusted to understand risk, and when it comes to alcohol, the difference between low and heavy consumption.”
The Department of Health refused to comment on the BPAS criticism, however a spokesman for the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said it was “best to avoid alcohol”.
“This advice is not about policing pregnant women’s behaviour, it is about giving them unbiased information and enabling them to make the choice that is right for them,” said Janet Fyle, RCM Professional Policy Advisor.
“Cumulative and regular alcohol consumption in pregnancy could have an impact on the health and wellbeing of mother and baby.”
She stressed, however, that expectant mothers concerned about their levels of drinking during should be supported by midwives in a “non-judgemental way”.
Accurate data on the the effects of moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy is almost impossible to achieve because it would be unethical to initiate wide-scale studies which compared the outcomes for children of drinkers to those of non-drinkers.