Is it Illegal to Drink During Pregnancy?

Well, that headline got your attention! Although there are many people who might think it should be illegal for a woman to drink alcohol during pregnancy, the reality is that it isn't.
Glass of wine

Photo by Peter Ardito

In some states, it used to be--well, sort of. As recently as 2005, in Wisconsin, a visibly pregnant woman seen drinking alcohol could be taken into police custody. In the 1990s, if a pregnant woman drank alcohol or used drugs, knowing this could harm her baby, it was considered a misdemeanor for child abuse in Tennessee. Similarly, a woman could be put into a treatment program against her will if the risk was deemed excessive to her unborn baby. Because a fetus can't represent or defend itself, some states opted for their own common laws to protect them.

"Today, heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy is not considered illegal even though we know it's a dangerous act on an innocent bystander," says Sheryl Ross, M.D., FACOG, in private practice in Santa Monica, California. So even though drinking alcohol--especially binge drinking--could pose a serious risk to a fetus, it's still not a problem in the eyes of the law.

Dr. Ross says that alcohol use in pregnancy is of huge concern to many organizations. including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes, but not enough to litigate. "What we have found is that punitive measures have, in the past, threatened the health of women and children and seriously erode women's right to privacy," Dr. Ross says.

Mona Prasad, D.O., M.P.H., a maternal fetal medicine specialist and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees. "The more women fear for their reproductive rights or whether they will have custody or legal issues while pregnant, the less likely they will be to embrace prenatal care." In this case, women who might normally drink alcohol during pregnancy feel they are being judged by doctors or peers and are therefore more likely to keep their pregnancies "under the radar," Dr. Prasad says. "It breeds a system of mistrust. Many will do what they can to avoid care. This is not the goal of doctors, as we can only help or intervene if we know a problem exists."

It's far more likely that during pregnancy you would be refused alcohol by a bartender or the waitstaff at a restaurant. Such was the case for Jane Hampson, 37, in the United Kingdom. She was past her due date and asked for a glass of wine at a pub. The bartender in question said he "didn't want it on his conscience," Hampson says.

Is it illegal to refuse service to anyone in a bar? Not technically. You can't blatantly discriminate, but a bartender who thinks it's harmful to serve someone alcohol could refuse that person service. And that means you could be refused that glass of wine or beer, if your bartender chooses.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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