I’m currently five months pregnant and have spent the summer sipping my way through non-alcoholic versions of wine, beer, cider, gin and prosecco – of varying qualities – in an effort not to turn into a pint of lime and soda. I’ve sat longingly in front of bountiful cheese boards, diligently googling which options I am ‘allowed’ to tuck into. I’ve saved up my daily caffeine allowance and ‘treated myself’, on those particularly wild nights, to a pint or two of Diet Coke. I’ve even toasted the wedding of two dear friends with a very large sip of real champagne before spending the rest of the night knocking back 0.0% prosecco.
So, needless to say, I was more than a bit pissed off by the latest in a long line of proposals to police pregnant women’s lifestyle choices. In case you missed it, the government is set to launch a review into labelling rules, which could see pregnancy warnings added to low and no-alcohol beverages like the ones I’ve been drinking for months. This proposal, according to the Daily Mail, "is driven by anti-alcohol campaigners who warn these products could act as a 'gateway' to higher alcohol alternatives."
The rationale for this is to do with the trace levels of alcohol contained in many of these products. Under UK licensing laws, drinks are classed as 'alcohol-free' if they contain no more than 0.05% alcohol by volume (ABV). Some imported products may contain up to 0.5% ABV, as the limit for alcohol-free labelling is higher in Europe and the US.
To put both of those figures into perspective, a banana (recommended by several NHS Trusts as a healthy pregnancy snack) contains between 0.2 and 0.4% ABV, depending on how ripe it is, and some breads contain as much as 1.2% ABV. In other words, the amount of booze in legally 'alcohol-free' products is still minuscule – a fraction of a unit per pint – and certainly not enough to have much impact even if consumed in large volumes, which is unlikely while there’s a foetus fidgeting on top of your bladder.
The reality is that if someone’s chosen to drink an alcohol-free option during pregnancy, it’s almost certainly because they’re trying to make sensible and responsible decisions on behalf of their unborn child. The thought that such a choice could act as some kind of gateway drug – that eventually, after enough alcohol-free Kopparbergs, I’ll crave the 'hit' of something stronger – is frankly laughable. As much as I’d love to enjoy a bottle of pinot and an entire brie with my friends right now, I’m also perfectly capable of waiting until my sprog’s safely earthside, thank you very much.
As I mentioned, this isn’t the first time in recent months that patronising proposals have been rolled out to tackle alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Earlier this year the World Health Organization (WHO) was criticised for its sexist and downright unworkable suggestion that all women of 'childbearing age' – regardless of whether they’re intending to become pregnant – should avoid drinking alcohol. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is also currently considering plans to record every alcoholic drink consumed during pregnancy, whether or not the patient consents to have this on their record.
These proposals are not just nonsensical, they are dangerous. The increasing policing of women's choices in pregnancy – in the absence of any evidence of harm to a baby – should worry us all.
Clare Murphy, Chief Executive of BPAS
While these proposals would affect all pregnant people, they’re clearly rooted in a misogynistic view of women as little more than pregnant or 'pre-pregnant' vessels, and a paternalistic belief that we can’t be trusted with autonomy over our own bodies. Of course, my right to an alcohol-free pint is pretty trivial compared to the attacks on reproductive rights in places like Texas, but the attitudes at play certainly stem from the same place.
As Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), told me: "These proposals – if serious – are not just nonsensical, they are dangerous. The increasing policing of women’s choices in pregnancy – in the absence of any evidence of harm to a baby – should worry us all. Proposals like this worsen anxiety around pregnancy, which can absolutely jeopardise maternal and foetal health. Non-evidence-based public health interventions like this are absolutely part of the problem, which we need to recognise and tackle as a matter of urgency."
It’s also worth remembering, as Clare points out, that "there is no consensus regarding whether low to mid-level alcohol consumption during pregnancy is actually harmful." The current NHS guidance, which recommends not drinking any alcohol at all during pregnancy, is based on the precautionary principle – better safe than sorry – rather than actual evidence of harm. Prior to 2007, the advice was to drink no more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week, and the justification for switching to a message of total abstinence was, essentially, to avoid confusing women.
This isn’t just patronising, it’s also not necessarily how the guidance plays out in real life. Over-cautious advice can actually cause more confusion and anxiety about what is or isn’t safe – and not just when it comes to alcohol. Research carried out by BPAS’ WRISK project, which looked at the communication of risks during pregnancy, found that the majority of expectant parents accept the precautionary principle and are happy, as I’ve been, to make sacrifices that may help to protect their unborn child. However, they also found high levels of anxiety, confusion and frustration about the way risks and evidence were explained.
In particular, they heard from women who’d put their own physical or mental health at risk by avoiding safe and necessary medications because they were frightened of harming their foetus. This same anxiety has arguably fuelled COVID vaccine hesitancy during pregnancy, despite growing numbers of pregnant women being admitted to hospital with the virus. On a more everyday level, I’ve seen panicked mums-to-be posting in pregnancy apps, at the height of this summer, to check if products like deodorants and ice creams were safe for their baby. By putting such over-the-top emphasis on foetal risks, we’ve inadvertently created an environment where some mums-to-be are terrified to do anything at all.
None of this is to say that problematic drinking doesn’t happen during pregnancy. There are people I love whose lives have very possibly been shaped by the effects of alcohol. But this won’t be prevented by a warning label on a bottle of wine, alcohol-free or otherwise. What women really need is proper, evidence-based information and specialist support to tackle the root causes; not more patronising and unscientific messages, which serve only to heighten anxieties.
At a time when we’re about to take on perhaps the single biggest responsibility of our lives, it’s absurd and deeply ironic that women and pregnant people are not trusted with the information and research to make our own decisions. How on earth am I meant to keep a tiny, fragile human alive if I can’t even be trusted with an alcohol-free G&T?