Breastfeeding while drunk? Since when is that a crime?

I yield to no one in my passionate commitment to the well being of children, but this incident leaves me distinctly uncomfortable. Prosecutors in North Dakota have filed charges of felony child neglect against Stacey Anvarinia. Was she abusing her 6 week old baby? No. Had she neglected to care for the baby? No. It was because she was breastfeeding the baby. The police officers and prosecutors decided, in their wisdom, that since Ms. Anvarinia appeared to be intoxicated, her breast milk posed imminent threat to the health of her baby.

Since when is breastfeeding while drunk a crime? Is it even a danger to the baby’s health? There is certainly a theoretical risk that a baby can be harmed by breastfeeding from a chronically intoxicated mother. Ethanol (alcohol) passes from the mother’s blood stream into her breast milk. However, it is diluted, and the baby receives only a tiny fraction of what the mother consumed. There is no scientific evidence that breastfeeding during a single episode of intoxication is harmful to the baby in any way.

The police officers made no attempt to prove that Ms. Anvarinia was actually drunk. She just “seemed” intoxicated to them. To my knowledge, they did not obtain evidence of the amount of ethanol, if any, in the baby’s bloodstream. So North Dakota has leveled a felony charge against Ms. Anvarinia without evidence that the “crime” in question was even committed. More disturbing, though, is that they made up the “crime”” to suit the circumstances, and likely influenced by the pervasive American hysteria over what children eat.

Let’’s be clear. They didn’t charge Ms. Anvarinia because she was drunk in her own home. They didn’t charge her because they thought that she was too drunk to care for her infant. They charged her because she was breastfeeding. Had she been bottlefeeding the baby, they would have ignored her drunkenness, though arguably the baby faced health risks from a drunken mother mixing formula. Mixing formula powder with water in the wrong proportions can be harmful to a baby.

Ms. Anvarinia was charged with felony child neglect solely because she was breastfeeding. Since there is no scientific evidence that breastfeeding while intoxicated is harmful to an infant, the officers and prosecutors simply made up the “crime.” In that, I suspect, they were influenced by the current American hysteria over what children eat. Not a day passes when Americans aren’t bombarded with messages about the “dangers” of childhood obesity, the “dangers” of sugar, the “dangers” of salt, etc.

Moreover, Americans seem chronically unable to understand the concept of risk. They routinely obsess about trivial or even non-existent risks, and they wrongly ascribe far more risk to “dangers” they perceive as uncontrollable (alcohol inadvertently given to a baby through breastmilk) than those over which they think they have control (rolling over and suffocating a baby sleeping in the same bed). Couple that with lack of familiarity with breastfeeding, and suddenly it is a “crime” to breastfeed while intoxicated.

This incident is deeply troubling for another reason. It is an attempt to criminalize mothering if it does not meet entirely arbitrary standards. Will they be charging mothers who smoke with felony child neglect, since second hand smoke poses a real, not theoretical, risk to an infant’s health? Will they be monitoring the dietary intake of women who breastfeed to make sure that the breast milk contains nutrients in the recommended amounts and doesn’t contain any non-approved prescription or over the counter medications?

The case against Ms. Anvarinia will almost certainly be dismissed because prosecutors lack the evidence needed to try her for endangering her child. They have no evidence that she was drunk or that any alcohol was transmitted to the child. Nonetheless, the mere fact that she was accused is deeply troubling. She was not charged because she was drunk, and she was not charged because she posed a threat to her child simply by being drunk. She was charged because she was mothering (breastfeeding) while drunk, a moral “deficiency” that the officers and prosecutors decided merited the designation of “crime.”