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WHO criticised by pregnancy services for suggesting ‘women of child-bearing age should not drink alcohol’

The Independent logo The Independent 17/06/2021 Saman Javed
a close up of a person holding a wine glass © Provided by The Independent

The World Health Organization (WHO) is facing criticism after the first draft of its Global Alcohol Action Plan seemed to suggest there should be a “prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age”.

The draft, which was released on Tuesday, 15 June, has been hailed a risk to “hard-won women’s rights” by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

The charity, which advocates for affordable services to prevent unwanted pregnancies, highlighted that there is “no consensus regarding whether low to mid-level alcohol consumption during pregnancy is actually harmful”.

Current NHS guidance states that drinking alcohol during pregnancy poses risk to the baby. It said the risk is higher the more you drink, but there is no proven “safe” level.

“Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can, which means it can damage cells in their brain, spinal cord and other parts of their body, and disrupt their development in the womb,” the NHS advises.

In its draft, the WHO urged governments to give “appropriate attention” to the “prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age”.

It said prenatal alcohol exposure is one of the “most dramatic manifestations of harm to persons other than drinkers” and leads to the development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

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Elsewhere in the draft, the WHO said alcohol use contributed to 0.7 million deaths of women across the world in 2016. More than three times the number of men, 2.3 million, died from alcohol use in the same year.

Clare Murphy, Chief Executive of BPAS said: “It is extremely disturbing to see the World Health Organization risk hard-won women’s rights by attempting to control their bodies and choices in this way.

“By treating all women – for 40 years of their lives – as little more than vessels, the WHO reduces women to little more than their reproductive capabilities.”

The charity has also criticised the language of the draft, which it said will fuel anti-abortion rhetoric.

“The narrative that women need to be stopped from posing a risk to foetuses – even those which do not exist - is used around the world to surveil and criminalise women making decisions during pregnancy.

“A global organisation such as WHO should recognise the power that such dangerous messaging about women’s behaviour carries, and should be more alert to the impact of these statements. We urge them to review this document as a matter of urgency,” Murphy said.

According to WHO, several rounds of consultations will take place before the action plan is finalised. This is a first draft of that plan.

A spokesperson said: “The overall objective of WHO’s public health work with regard to alcohol is to protect health and prevent health conditions that result from its harmful use.

“The current draft of WHO’s global action plan does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant. However it does seek to raise awareness of the serious consequences that can result from drinking alcohol while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not yet known.”

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