Suppose This Woman Had Been My Mother!

BFP Magazine

Alcohol & Health

Alcohol and pregnancies

Suppose This Woman Had Been My Mother!

By Dr. W. Gifford Jones

April 8, 2007

It's an ideal way to write a column. I'm attending a medical conference while cruising the Caribbean sea. But don't think I'm goofing off. I'm spending long days listening to a variety of international speakers. But as a former ship's surgeon I also love being at sea.

One speaker, Dr. George Carson, Director of Fetal Medicine at the University of Regina, reported on the use of alcohol in pregnancy.

Some authorities have a simple solution for the tragic habit of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Dr. Christine Lock, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, says it's a myth that only irresponsible derelict mothers cause serious birth defects. Her blunt message, "If we drink in pregnancy we place our children at risk".

Dr. Carson said Dr. Locke's approach is indeed simple, but he questioned whether it is good policy. He stressed that pregnancy is not a disease, and that we're scaring pregnant women half to death when they have a single glass of wine.

He presented data that showed moderate consumption of alcohol during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is not associated with increased risk of fetal abnormalities. And that some studies show there is a benefit to having one alcoholic drink a day.

However Drs. Locke, Carson and I all abhor the effects of excessive drinking during pregnancy. To destroy yourself with alcohol makes no sense. Even worse, destroying an infant physically and mentally before birth is maternal madness. But year after year in this country, alcohol-riddled babies are born suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Health Canada estimates that nine in every 1,000 babies born in this country have some form of FAS and one in three of these babies will have the severe form, with wide-set eyes, thin upper lips, low birth weight and small head circumference. And that five ounces of absolute alcohol a day, or binge drinking, can cause this medical and social disaster.

Another medical catastrophe, reported by Dr. Carson, is substance abuse and HIV infected babies. Today women are the fastest growing group of persons with new HIV infections. He cited a typical case, a 24-year-old woman seen in the emergency department of a hospital. She was agitated by a severely infected vein from repeated drug injections. Tests soon revealed she was pregnant, had HIV, hepatitis C, gonorrhea, chlamydia and had been using cocaine and marijuana.

Hearing of this case initially made me think, "My God! Suppose this had been my Mother! What a disastrous way to start life!"

Today sexual activity is occurring at an earlier age. And "party drugs" such as Ecstasy are linked to unsafe sexual behaviour and HIV infected babies.

It's tragic for mothers to be infected with the AIDS virus. But not to get treatment compounds the problem. Dr. Carson reported that 15 percent of all HIV infected women receive no prenatal care in the U.S. compared to two percent of the general population.

For untreated women who do not breast feed, 20 to 30 percent of babies will be infected with HIV. But an additional 15 to 20 percent will become infected with the virus during breast feeding.

What a horrendous disaster! The cost to taxpayers runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. But what about these babies? It's ironic that anti-abortionists always cry to High Heaven about the rights of the fetus. But don't these same babies have rights?

I realize it's impossible to prevent irresponsible, drug-ridden women from getting pregnant. But Dr. Carson related cases of HIV women getting pregnant over and over again. Good sense dictates that there should be legislation that allows society to sterilize these women. Surely children should have the right be protected from such irresponsible mothers. But it won't happen. No one in authority has the intestinal fortitude to even mention this possibility.

In time I'll report on less troubling medical information from this Sea Course. But I'm amazed at how few physicians are aware of these courses. Any physician who wants information about them can contact me at For overworked doctors it's a great way to keep up-to-date on medical matters, meet colleagues and return home more relaxed.

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He's been a ship's surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: He can be reached at

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