Reminder to CDC: Women are more than baby-portals


No one likes to receive unsolicited advice; and government recommendations are no exception to this. But the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t heed that warning when on Tuesday it released a new alcohol advisory, aimed at child-carriers (who we in the 21st century have started to call ‘women’).

The CDC has recommended that women of a childbearing age who are not using birth control completely abstain from alcohol intake to avoid an accidental, alcohol-exposed pregnancy.

From the CDC's Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D.:

Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant...About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking. The risk is real. Why take the chance?

Why take the chance? In the off-chance that a woman could get pregnant during 3-4 decades of her life, why wouldn't she abstain from alcohol (and while she’s at it, cut out raw fish, cured meat and soft cheeses, stop skiing, avoid overheating and sign up to antenatal courses too.)

Those outside the- 4-decade span haven't been excluded fully from the press release either. While the CDC mainly addressed the effects of alcohol on pregnant women, their infographic suggests far more ambitious plans to cut down on women's alcohol consumption alltogether. Keep in mind "heavy drinking" is defined by the CDC for woman as "consuming eight drinks or more per week".

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Fear-mongering much?

Quite rightfully, the Internet went ballistic over the insinuation women should be prioritizing the biological possibility of pregnancy over their daily activities, which include drinking habits.

These recommendations in the States come just weeks after here in the UK the Department of Health changed its alcohol guidelines, lowering maximum unit intake to 14 a week for both men and women, making the UK’s recommendations some of the most restrictive in Europe.

The CDC's and DoH's recommendations are different, but the recommendations of both government bodies were created with the same, faulty assumption: individuals can’t be trusted to their own lifestyle choices, and if left to make up their own minds, will engage in risky behavior.

There is indeed an appropriate way to advise women about the potential consequences of drinking while pregnant, but terrifying non-pregnant women out of a glass of wine because of ‘what might be’ falls short of providing an education tutorial.

Do child benefits benefit society?

Child benefits are not simply philanthropic; they should motivate the parenthood society needs, notably a healthy birthrate for a population aging fast and parents bringing up contributors to society.  Currently 7.9M households receive child benefits, and there are, or were at the last count, 13.7M children qualifying.  That’s about £12.6bn child benefits in total  in total, disregarding those earning over £50, 000 who no longer qualify but still have to fill in all the HMRC forms just the same. Of course, you can also get up to £122.50 p.w. for one child, or £210 p.w. for more, to cover some child care costs for the better off.  So you get £1,066 for being a parent at home looking after the kid but six times as much if you go out and abandon it.  Not much of an incentive for the kind of parenting the country needs.

And if you are really bad parents, which probably also means parents in poverty, the State takes the children away.  “Looked after children” is the new term.  The numbers of children looked after is about 92,000 in England and growing, probably because of the squeeze, since 2008, on low income households.  The cost per looked after child is about £50,000 p.a.  It would be cheaper to send them to Eton – about £30,000 p.a.  The cost of looked after children does not include their disproportionate poor performance in school, absenteeism, low incomes as adults and likelihood of occupying our criminal justice system.

Most people recognise that this is a vicious circle but not only has no government addressed the problem but it seems to be deteriorating.  The system rewards people for poor parenting.  In theory, when a child is taken into care, the parents should inform HMRC that, after eight weeks, child benefit should cease.  There is no requirement of the care worker or the court making the order to do so.  In all the emotion of a child being removed, would you tell HMRC to stop paying you?

On the same basis, child benefits should be withdrawn for parts of the school year for children at boarding school but maybe the fine print covers that.

Child tax credits are a devious means of raising the tax take, from higher earnings, and the government claiming higher employment.  At £20 per week for the first child, parenting is a financial drain. Neither financial inducement is incentivising parents in poverty to perform better. Well-off parents do not need them.

Child benefits should be quadrupled, but only be given for the first two children and to parents earning less that £50,000 p.a.  The responsible official, court or care worker, should advise HMRC about children taken into care.  And child care tax credits should be abolished.

Do we need Children’s Services?


Of course our children need care and protection from abuse. The question is whether the responsible bureaucracies give value for money, or indeed provide that care and protection at all. Following each scandal, we are told that no one is to blame: the problem is systemic. Then we are told that the bureaucracies will work better together in the future. Then history repeats itself. Rotherham should be a wake up call. In fact, the problem really is systemic and it needs a systems solution. It is not a question of money. From 2001 to 2010 English and Welsh councils’ child social care expenditure nearly doubled from £4.7bn to £8.6bn at 2010 prices. Would anyone suggest that the quality and extent of child care has doubled?

Of course the problem is hugely complex and there is no single, simple solution but at the root is the excess of bodies paddling in the same swamp: Local Authority children’s services, schools, doctors and hospitals, police and charities such as Barnardo’s and the NSPCC. Each case is like Gerard Hoffnung’s performance by solo violin and massed conductors.

Serious child abuse of any form is a crime. Where a teacher, doctor or any social worker believes that a crime may have been committed, or may still be in progress, then that should be reported to the police like any other possible crime. The police should investigate without fear, favour, concerns for being branded racist or other politically correct excuses for doing nothing – or passing the buck to social services.

The bigger question is then whether children’s services are necessary at all. If the current Local Authority bureaucracies did not exist, what would we put in their place?

Rotherham demands a systemic solution and that in turn demands we start with a blank page.

Clearly we need the youth justice system and adoption facilities though those are also offered by the voluntary sector, e.g. Barnardo’s. Given Local Authorities’ manifest incompetence in adoption maybe that should be turned over to the voluntary sector and perhaps arrangements for fostering too. If taxpayer value would be improved, as it is being for schools, by channelling taxpayer funding through the voluntary sector, then why not? Equally well if something like the existing services can be radically rebuilt to give our children the protection they need, then so be it. But if we just go on tinkering and adding more boxes to tick, more Rotherhams will follow.