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GIFFORD-JONES: Babies should not have to live with consequences of a damaged brain

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Education is the ultimate answer to lowering numbers of FASD cases

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that all Canadians receive justice. The U.S. Constitution states that “All men are created Equal”. But some children are born who do not receive justice and they will never be equal.

It’s because they have damaged brains at birth, due to mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy.

There are startling facts about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disease (FASD) that may make your hair stand on end.

Public Health Agencies say that in Canada alone, there are 300,000 children currently living with this disability. And reports say that between one and nine in a thousand babies are born with this devastating neurological condition.

Why such tragedy? Because once a baby’s brain is damaged by alcohol no treatment can restore it to normal. It means an FASD child faces a lifetime of inequality because of a mother who knows the risks of alcohol during pregnancy but refuses to stop drinking or who is unaware of this danger.

There is still some ignorance about drinking alcohol during pregnancy. For instance, The National Organization on FASD reports that one in five women drink during pregnancy. In addition, 15 per cent of women of child-bearing age don’t realize the danger of alcohol during pregnancy. And I find it amazing that in 2019 40 per cent of women of child-bearing age do not use contraception.

There’s another troubling problem. Women who become pregnant may not know they are pregnant for several weeks, sometimes months. In the meantime, they may be injuring their child’s brain by imbibing.

We know that FASD occurs in one-third to one half of infants whose mothers consumed six or more alcoholic drinks daily during pregnancy. A Harvard study showed the risk decreases to 10 per cent with three drinks daily.

Pregnant mothers often fail to realize that when they drink alcohol the fetus also consumes it. But what is pleasurable to the mother can be catastrophic to an unborn fetus. Pregnant women have a mature functioning liver that detoxifies alcohol in the blood. A developing fetus does not have this metabolic safeguard. This means alcohol crosses the blood-brain barrier and subjects the brain to high levels of alcohol for a longer time. It spells disaster for the developing brain.

Studies show that about 60 per cent of these children, burdened by a host of neurological mental problems, end up in prison or a mental health facility. And the lifetime cost of one of these children has been estimated as high as one million dollars.

So how can we stop alcohol from being the leading source of preventable birth defects? Education is the ultimate answer, yet getting this message across is easier said than done. After all, Ireland is not a Third World country, but the Irish pub may be responsible for Ireland being listed as one of five countries in the world with a high incidence of FASD children.

Perhaps a primary message to women would be to use birth control until they are ready to have a baby. In addition, they must abstain from alcohol while trying to become pregnant. And once pregnant, they need to say “no” to alcohol altogether, as no one knows the safe amount.

Destroying your own life by alcohol is one matter. But doing so to an unborn child is madness. One such tragedy is a recent report of an FASD mother who is being overseen by 21 social agencies, three social workers and who is upset that her seven children are all in foster care.

It’s hard to envision the social chaos in this family, the future for these children and countless others in the same situation. Then add on the huge economic cost to taxpayers.

I’d predict that readers will have comments about this catastrophe. If so, I’ll publish them.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a syndicated columnist whose medical column appears in The Guardian every Tuesday. Check out his website,, which provides easy access to past columns and medical tips. For comments, readers are invited to email him at He can also be found on

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