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Alcohol, pregnancy and the Holy Bible
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  5. The Netherlands

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    Editor—In an interesting article Dunn presented some insights on perinatal practice mentioned in the Holy Bible.1 One of his examples is about alcohol use and pregnancy. Dunn refers to Judges 13:3–4. This passage deals with the saga of Samson. An angel appears to the hero’s mother before she is pregnant and cautions: Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest  not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son. Now therefore beware, I pray thee, and  drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any  unclean thing.

    According to Dunn, this passage indicates that barren women were warned not to drink alcohol if they wished to conceive. However, in an excellent review on the various epochs of the history of the fetal alcohol syndrome, Abel points out what the real meaning of this excerpt is.2 The angel is not warning Samson’s mother for the teratogenic effects of alcohol, but makes it clear that Samson is predetermined to live the ascetic life of a Nazirite. In the next verse (Judges 13:5) it is stated: “...for the child shall be, a Nazirite unto God from the womb.. .” The pledge of the Nazirites prohibited those who took it, from the use of intoxicants, from cutting their hair, and from touching dead bodies. Samson was predestined to become a Nazirite from the moment of his conception (“from the womb”).

    There are more passages in the ancient and medieval world where there seems to be a pre-recognition of the deleterious effects of alcohol on the fetus. According to Abel, in all these passages the drinking habits of the father are considered to be harmful for the developing child. An awareness that drinking by the mother during pregnancy could be related to birth defects did not come into being until the end of the 19th century. But the evidence at that time was not considered very convincing. It was not the drinking habits of the parents, but rather the way in which their social and constitutional factors differed from those of non-alcoholic parents that were regarded as the real culprits. The first detailed description that offspring may be harmed by excessive drinking appeared as late as 1968.3