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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 13910

Dr STONE (Murray) (11:26): by leave—Pregnant women drinking alcohol is the biggest cause of permanent, irreversible, non-genetic brain damage in newborns in Australia. I think this is a shocking statistic and it is a tragedy, because so many of the women who give birth to these disabled babies had not been aware of the danger of drinking during pregnancy. Other women have had an alcohol addiction but they were not helped or supported during their pregnancy to try to reduce their alcohol consumption or to eliminate their alcohol use altogether. This is a shocking indictment of our society, I believe.

We can no longer simply pretend that there are no serious consequences when it comes to keeping this problem hidden. That is why the title of our report refers to the hidden business of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder—where there is the exposure of the unborn to alcohol in the womb and the irreversible brain and other damage that can occur. I know we were deeply moved during the time that we took evidence in this inquiry. We were moved by the pleading of birth mothers and foster mothers and fathers who care for these children, despite their often not being able to get any government support or assistance, despite a lot of medical professionals sending them away and saying, 'Look, we don't really think you need a diagnosis for your child, because do you really want your child to live with the stigma of it being known that they have been damaged by their mother drinking?'

We are aware from other reports undertaken in this place, particularly by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, that so many of our people in prisons, particularly Indigenous people in prisons, are in fact suffering from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The effect of this condition means that people who are locked up for crimes often have very limited capacity to stay on the straight and narrow, to remain law abiding. It is a condition that affects their cognitive skills and their capacity to learn and memorise and creates poor understanding of cultural concepts, ideals and norms and this leads them to being locked up.

I think we are now at a stage in Australia where we do acknowledge that, yes, we have a strong drinking culture. We acknowledge that a lot of our alcohol companies, whether they produce beer, spirits or wine, are the major sponsors of sport in Australia. A lot of our sporting clubs could not buy their bats and balls if they did not have the local pub sponsoring their activities.

But the time has come when we need to make sure that every man and woman knows about the impacts of alcohol on the unborn. We are asking women who are planning to become pregnant or who are pregnant to simply not drink for the nine months of their pregnancy. I repeat that the problem of foetal alcohol syndrome as it affects the unborn baby is totally avoidable. If you do not drink, there is no possibility of your child being born with any of the characteristics of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

I am concerned that, even though we have the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines quite categorically stating that the safest option for women is not to drink alcohol when pregnant or planning a pregnancy—those guidelines are in black and white—we have medical professionals who fail to even ask about the drinking habits or intentions of women who come to them who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. So many women are offered alcohol in their hospital bed when they have just delivered a baby, particularly if they are in private medical wards. We have a lot of pressure on young women to drink and to drink as hard and as often as men. We have a binge drinking epidemic at the moment, with young girls binge drinking. Those same young girls may then have unsafe sex and can then become pregnant and may continue to drink for a long time before they even realise that they are pregnant. This is a very sad and serious situation in Australia and it can lead to some shocking consequences for the unborn.

This report is well overdue. It is timely, though, that it is released when the government has already started to invest in a diagnostic tool and when the government has also acknowledged that there needs to be a federal, state and local government and community-wide campaign for understanding what the dangers of drinking are when you are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant. We have to have a communication campaign. It has to be broad as well as targeted. We have to have proper labelling of alcohol so it carries a warning for pregnant women. It is amazing that we are so proud about the labelling restrictions for tobacco and yet we have no mandated labelling for alcohol.

We also have to recognise FASD as a disability so that people who care for the victims can have some resources, through the new disability insurance policy moves or through the current disability support pension and carer schemes. We have to make sure that teachers, those in the judiciary, social workers, counsellors—anyone working in the community—understand what this condition is about so they can recognise those who are victims and then take better action when trying to help those people reach their full potential.

Of course, this inquiry was important for those who suffer from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder themselves, the victims of this condition. Our very able chair, Mr Graham Perrett, mentioned the tragic story of little Tristan. He happens to be an Aboriginal boy, but this condition of FASD is not exclusive to, or most commonly found in, Indigenous communities. Tristan is a young boy. He has brothers and sisters with the same FASD condition. He just wants to be normal, he says. He knows he is not. He knows he cannot learn like others. He knows he cannot take responsibility like others. But he just wants to be normal. It is not fair that any young Australian should want to be normal but cannot be because of the damage that they suffered in the womb because their mother did not know not to drink or could not help drinking during her nine months of pregnancy.

This is a detailed report. It includes a lot of time-specific actions. Obviously there are resource implications. We need to thank the health professionals, particularly the people from the George institute and the Telethon institute. We have to acknowledge the brilliant work done by the Fitzroy Crossing community to tackle the FASD problems in their community. We were overwhelmed by the support and concern of those who know about this problem and know it must be tackled. I too commend this report to the House.