The suit against responsibility

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

It is impossible to deny that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is an enormous problem. Nor that it demands swift and serious action. The question of how to address it, though, is not so clear. Speaking to the CBC earlier this week, a pediatrician from Prince George suggested that class action lawsuits should be filed on behalf of those suffering FASD against alcohol companies. Again, while it is indisputable that something must be done, this particular proposal is deeply problematic.

Dr. Marie Hay advocated launching class action suits against alcohol companies, hoping that the legal battle would produce similar results to the class actions against tobacco companies: cut down on the propensity for this type of abuse taking place and increase the financial means for dealing with its resultant problems. The comparison with the tobacco suits is interesting, but troubling. In that case, there was the problem of the nature of advertising for those products and the dubious denials of the harm and addictiveness that accompanied smoking. In the case of FASD, this does not seem to apply nearly as well.

The damage done to fetuses by alcohol has not been expressly denied and alcohol, though obviously marketed, is not done so specifically to pregnant women. The argument would seemingly have to be that it is addictive and therefore women who are drawn in by advertising and then become pregnant may have been affected by that advertising. This leads directly to the major problem indicated by this proposal– the complete erosion of personal responsibility that continues to infect our culture.

Though Canadian litigiousness has not reached the absurd level that it has in the United States, this type of case can only degrade us. It is not the alcohol companies that are ultimately responsible for the injuries incurred by alcohol consumption during pregnancy, but the mothers of those unfortunate children. Proposing a case like this effectively diminishes their culpability in this deplorable practice and gives it an air of acceptability. It reinforces the notion that an individual can’t be blamed for an action and as such can’t be in control of it. This is necessary for the argument because if it were admitted that an individual does have the power to avoid consuming alcohol while pregnant, suing alcohol companies for FASD cases would be incoherent. This, then, actually promotes irresponsibility, claiming that women are powerless to take care of themselves and their yet-to-be-born offspring. It is not my fault that my child is sick, it is yours.

Seeking legal recourse against alcohol companies for FASD cases is a poor decision. It would be much more appropriate, indeed beneficial, to pursue other options. Educational opportunities for communities experiencing higher than normal instances of FASD is a good option. So is increasing the availability of substance abuse programs for those who need it. Certainly there are many other options.

This is not a problem that can be solved by abdicating responsibility. Just the opposite, actually.