Drinking in pregnancy: the right to record, or the right to privacy?

Luisa Zuccolo , MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit and Department of Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol

Cheryl McQuire, School for Public Health Research/Centre for Public Health and Department of Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol

Follow Luisa and Cheryl on TwitterCheryl McQuireLuisa Zuccolo

What’s the issue?

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy continues to stir passionate and polarised reactions. The issue has once again come into sharp focus. In England, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is proposing to measure all alcohol use in pregnancy and transfer this information to a child’s health records, without explicit agreement from the mother. The aim of the proposal is to ensure better diagnosis and support for those with lifelong conditions caused by drinking in pregnancy that can include problems with learning, behaviour and physical abnormalities, known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). However, the NICE proposal has been met with strong opposition from some organisations, which say that this breaches pregnant women’s right to medical privacy.

A balancing act

Benefits of introducing the proposed FASD NICE Quality Standards

It’s important to remind ourselves why measuring and sharing information on drinking in pregnancy could be worthwhile, and who will benefit.

Information – the key to understanding

Official guidance recommends that it is safest not to drink at all during pregnancy, or when trying for a baby. But a quarter of people in the UK are not aware of this guidance and the UK has the fourth highest rate of drinking in pregnancy in the world. The new NICE quality standards propose to rectify this by making it compulsory for midwives (or other health care professionals) to have conversations about alcohol with pregnant women.  The idea is to help women to make informed choices about drinking in pregnancy.

Information is in everyone’s interest. We still don’t know enough about the effects of different levels of alcohol use in pregnancy. This is a tricky area to study, in large part because we don’t have enough information. If we don’t measure, we can’t fully understand the effects of alcohol in pregnancy (not even to confirm whether small amounts are safe). This has been our area of research for a number of years, and it is important both because many pregnant women drink alcohol, and because they should have the right to be better informed. Current abstinence guidelines are largely (but not solely) based on the precautionary principle. Our research has provided some evidence that even low levels of use (two drinks a week or fewer) can have negative effects, including smaller babies and preterm birth. We need more information to find out about the full extent of these risks – including whether the risks are genuinely there – to ensure that women can make informed decisions based on the best possible evidence.

Diagnosing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are severely underdiagnosed. They are characterised by lifelong problems with learning, behaviour and, in some cases, physical abnormalities. Contrary to what many think, these are common disorders. Our recent research suggests that between 6 and 17% of children in the UK could have symptoms consistent with FASD. Without good information on exposure to alcohol in pregnancy, many of these children remain ‘invisible’ to services and do not get the support that they need.

Pregnant woman holding a glass of red wine

Concerns about the Quality Standards

Despite the potential benefits of these proposals, there are several unresolved issues that need tackling urgently.

Stigma and trust

If women feel stigmatised, they might lie about their drinking, invalidating any data collection. If they can’t trust their healthcare providers, then we can’t trust the data – so what would be the point of collecting it?

Tradeoffs

What would women be offered, in exchange for volunteering this information? What’s in it for them? It would be unbalanced and probably unethical to request information about drinking in pregnancy, at the risk of stoking maternal anxiety, without explaining the reasons, or offering support if so desired. The treatment of pregnant women who smoke provides an appropriate model – information is recorded on antenatal notes, and support to quit is offered at the same time. We need to guarantee a non-judgmental and supportive approach to listening when it comes to alcohol too.

Confidentiality

Women should be able to opt out. For those opting in, it should be made clear that the same high levels of confidentiality will apply as are already in place for current information from maternity notes and child health records. These new data on alcohol use should be no different and must be covered by existing guarantees.

Finding the right balance

So, where is the balance between the benefits and risks of the proposed changes? We often talk about burdening pregnant women with anxieties, but we neglect to talk about the lifelong consequences of emotional and behavioural problems arising from exposure to alcohol in pregnancy – these pose real everyday challenges for families, for many years to come. If on the one hand, maternal health is child health, then on the other child health is maternal health.

As we hear in these COVID-19 times, health is a marathon not a sprint

We need to continue shifting the focus from ‘healthy pregnancies’ to ‘healthy families’. The former can be met with resistance by those evoking the dangers of the surveillance state and policing women’s ‘baby-making’ bodies. The latter reminds us of the many individuals involved, all equally important, all of whom need support for the long term beyond those initial nine months.  We believe that NICE should listen to the plurality of women and families’ voices. The debate on recording alcohol in pregnancy will lead to constructive health gains that will benefit all.

Beyond question: a collaboration between EPoCH and artist Olga Trevisan

Back in May, IEU researcher Dr Gemma Sharp took part in Creative Reactions, an initiative that pairs scientists with artists to create artwork based on their academic research. With 50 artists and 50 scientists collaborating on works from sculptures and wood carvings to canvas, digital and performance art, the 2019 exhibition ran across two venues in Bristol.

Gemma was paired with Olga Trevisan, an artist based in Venice, Italy. They had conversations over Skype where they spoke about their work and formed some initial ideas about how they could combine their interests in a new way while remaining coherent to their own practices. Reflecting on the collaboration, Olga said, “I love how curious you can be of a subject you haven’t considered before. I believe collaboration helps to open your own mind.”

Based on some of the work around EPoCH, Olga created a piece called Beyond Question, which comments on the complexities of scientific data collection, bias and interpretation.

It poses questions around the pervasive assumption that pregnant women are more responsible for the (ill) health of their unborn children than their male partners are. Gemma and colleagues have argued that such assumptions drive the research agenda and the public perception of parental roles, by shaping which research questions get asked, which data are collected, and the quality of the scientific ‘answer’.

Photo credit: Olga Trevisan

Beyond Question was presented in two phases at two separate exhibitions: during the first phase, people were invited to answer questions with a simple Yes or No using a stylus; leaving no marks but only invisible, anonymous traces on the surface below. Answers will reflect the real assumptions, beliefs and attitudes of the respondent, but perhaps also, despite anonymity, their eagerness to ‘please’ the questioners, to give the ‘right’ answer, and to mask their true responses to paint themselves in the ‘best’ light.

In the second phase, the questions were removed and the answer traces were left alone to carry their own meaning; free to be combined with the attitudes, beliefs and assumptions of the viewer and to be interpreted and judged in perhaps an entirely different way.

Photo credit: Olga Trevisan

The questions posed were:

  • “Do you think a mother’s lifestyle around the time of pregnancy could be bad for her baby’s health?”
  • “Do you think a father’s lifestyle around the time of pregnancy could be bad for his baby’s health?”
  • “Before her baby is born, a pregnant mother shouldn’t be allowed to do unhealthy things, like smoke or drink alcohol. Do you agree or disagree?”
  • “Before his baby is born, a father shouldn’t be allowed to do unhealthy things, like smoke or drink alcohol. Do you agree or disagree?”

Find out more

Further info about Creative Reactions Bristol is available on their facebook page, or contact Matthew Lee on matthew.lee@bristol.ac.uk 

This blog post was originally posted on the EPOCH blog.

It’s the mother! Is there a strong scientific rationale for studying pregnant mothers so intensively?

Dr Gemma Sharp, University of Bristol 

For many years, researchers have been studying how our early life experiences, including those that happen before we are born, can affect our lifelong health. In an article we wrote last year, Debbie Lawlor (University of Bristol), Sarah Richardson (Harvard University) and I show that most of these studies have focused on the characteristics and behaviours of mothers around the time of pregnancy. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, Debbie Lawlor, Sarah Richardson, Laura Schellhas and I show that there have been more studies of maternal prenatal influences on offspring health than any other factors (read more here).

We argue this is because people assume that mothers, through their connection to the developing fetus in the womb, are the single most important factor in shaping a child’s health. This assumption runs deep and is reinforced at every level, from researchers, to research funders, to journalists, to policy makers, to health care professionals and the general public  (see figure 1).

In our article, we question the truth behind this assumption.

Is there a strong scientific rationale for studying pregnant mothers so intensively?

Well, no actually. Although a lot of studies have found correlations between maternal characteristics and offspring health, the evidence that these characteristics actually have a causal effect is pretty weak. And since there haven’t been many studies of the effects of fathers and other factors, it’s difficult to say how important any maternal effect might be compared to any other early life experience.

Focusing so intensively on pregnant mothers, and interpreting all evidence as causal (if a mother does X, their unborn child will have Y), can have very damaging effects. Complex, nuanced scientific findings are being rushed into simplified advice that, although well-meaning, places the burden of blame on individual pregnant women. For example, there has been very little research on the effects of low-level drinking during pregnancy, but the current advice in the United States is for all sexually active women of reproductive age to avoid alcohol completely if they are not using birth control, for fear of fetal harm.

Fig. 1 Assumptions that the health, lifestyle and behaviours of mothers around the time of pregnancy have the largest causal influence on their children’s health and risk of disease drives research at all stages, from study design to research translation, and is also reinforced by research itself.

A culture of blame

The culture of blame is more overt in the media, where articles are often guilty of scaremongering. This feeds into public beliefs about how pregnant women should and shouldn’t behave, which can limit pregnant women’s freedom and even lead to questions around whether their behaviour is criminal. For example, pregnant women have reportedly been refused alcoholic drinks in bars, and taking drugs during pregnancy is legally classed as child abuse in many US states.

In our article, we make a number of recommendations that we hope will create more of a balance. In particular, we call for more research on how child health might be influenced by fathers and other factors, including the social conditions and inequalities that influence health behaviours. We also call for greater attention to be paid to how health advice to pregnant women is constructed and conveyed, with clear communication of the supporting scientific evidence to allow individuals to form their own opinions.

The EPoCH study

In June, I’ll begin work on a new project to investigate how both mothers and fathers’ lifestyles might causally affect the health of their children. Funded by the Medical Research Council, the EPoCH (Exploring Prenatal influences on Childhood Health) study will highlight whether attempts to improve child health are best targeted at mothers, fathers or both parents. I’m excited to work closely with the people behind WRISK to help ensure that findings from this project are communicated effectively and responsibly.

I hope that, along with the rest of the research community, we can produce high quality evidence to support health care and advice that maximises the health of all family members and stops blaming women for the ill health of the next generation.

The original article can be accessed (open access) here, and the authors’ full list of recommendations can be found below.

Full recommendations

Our full recommendations, which apply variously to researchers, journalists, policy makers and clinicians:

  • Collect more and better quality data on partners of pregnant women.
  • In addition to studying the effects of mothers, study and compare the effects of partners/fathers, social and other factors on child health.
  • Look for causal relationships between these factors and child health, not just (potentially spurious) correlations.
  • Publish all results, including negative results, to give a balanced view of the evidence.
  • Be aware and critical of the current imbalance in the scientific literature and how this will bias our overall understanding of the truth.
  • Collaborate with social scientists to consider the social implications of this research and the role of cognitive bias and social assumptions when interpreting findings.
  • When communicating findings, put the risk in context: compare findings to the broader scientific literature and the social environment.
  • Avoid language that suggests individual mothers are responsible for direct harm to their foetuses (most of the evidence will be based on averages in a population and can’t be assumed to apply to all individuals).
  • Where there is evidence of a paternal effect, aim public health advice at both parents.
  • Explain the level of risk in a way that empowers people to assess the evidence and form their own opinions (i.e. avoid over simplification).

This blog post is an edited version of one originally posted on the WRISK project website.