Should we ban women from smoking while pregnant?

[This post originally appeared on the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics’ blog, for which I am a regular contributor.]

In the U.K., a Labour plan has recently been in the news and stimulating some interesting debate – mainly about the over-regulation of smoking.

As can be seen on the BBC news website, Labour peers have “tabled an amendment to the Children and Families Bill detailing their proposal for England, which they said was about “protecting children”. Lord Hunt, who supports the motion, has stated

“Some Lords will argue a car is a private space and that we should not legislate for what happens within such a space. But there are more important principles than that… For one for me is the need for child protection. Unlike most adults, children lack the freedom to decide when and how to travel, they lack the authority most adults have to ask people not to smoke in their company. And in those circumstances I think it is right for Parliament to step in to protect children.”

Now, it is known than passive smoking does harm children. Exposure to second-hand smoke has been strongly linked to chest infections, asthma, ear problems and cot death in children.

It seems, however, that smoking while pregnant causes at least as many health problems – and in all likelihood, is even worse for the unborn child. Smoking while pregnant has been shown to increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, increase likelihood of premature birth, increase the likelihood of babies being born underweight, increases the likelihood of cot death, increases the chance of the baby developing lung problems, and even is associated with longer term developmental learning problems.

Now, if the government perceives its role – as Lord Hunt does – as being a protector of children, why is it not proposing to make it illegal for mothers to smoke while pregnant? If Parliament should step in to protect children, why not protect unborn children?

It seems to me – and this is merely my own impression – that the reason this has not been seriously discussed, and will not be proposed, is that it links too strongly too abortion. That is, if the government starts protecting unborn children against the numerous negative effects of smoking by the mother, should then not also start protecting the rights of unborn children by limiting abortion? That is, if the government begins to protect an unborn child’s health from later health problems, it seems odd to then allow abortion – ending the child’s life.

Whether or not we agree that the government should step in to protect children from smoking, it seems contradictory to ban smoking in cars (where a child may spend some of their time, perhaps 1 or 2 hours a day), while allowing smoking while pregnant (where a child spends about 9 months in the womb).

This consistency is interesting, and I think this arises due to abortion and the general ‘pro-choice’ stance of the British government.