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J Med Ethics 35:300-303 doi:10.1136/jme.2008.028662
  • Clinical ethics
    • Paper

“You can’t handle the truth”; medical paternalism and prenatal alcohol use

  1. C Gavaghan
  1. Colin Gavaghan, School of Law, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK; C.Gavaghan{at}law.gla.ac.uk
  • Received 1 December 2008
  • Accepted 15 January 2009

Abstract

The publication of the latest contribution to the alcohol-in-pregnancy debate, and the now customary flurry of media attention it generated, have precipitated the renewal of a series of ongoing debates about safe levels of consumption and responsible prenatal conduct. The University College London (UCL) study’s finding that low levels of alcohol did not contribute to adverse behavioural outcomes—and may indeed have made a positive contribution in some cases—is unlikely to be the last word on the subject. Proving a negative correlation is notoriously difficult (technically, impossible), and other studies have offered alternative claims. The author is not an epidemiologist, and the purpose of this article is not to evaluate the competing empirical claims. However, the question of what information and advice healthcare practitioners ought to present to pregnant women, or prospectively or potentially pregnant women, in a situation of uncertainty is one to which healthcare ethicists may have a contribution to make. In this article, it is argued that the total abstinence policy advocated by the UK’s Department of Health, and even more stridently by the British Medical Association, sits uneasily with recent data and is far from ethically unproblematic. In particular, the “precautionary” approach advocated by these bodies displays both scant regard for the autonomy of pregnant and prospectively pregnant women and a confused grasp of the principles of beneficence and non-maleficence.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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