Would you serve wine to a pregnant woman?


So imagine you are tending a bar. A conspicuously pregnant woman asks for a large glass of Chardonnay. You do nothing. “I said can I have a large glass of Chardonnay, please … today!” she repeats her order, obviously irritated by your lack of action. You hesitate then summon up a considered response. “Is it for you or are you expecting a friend?” “What? Just give me the wine.” “Are you sure?” you ask, irritating her even more. “The wine please. Now!”

Your next line rocks her back: “I refuse. I am not going to have it on my conscience. I don’t want to serve alcohol to a pregnant woman. The National Health Service advises that pregnant women should drink no more than one or two units of alcohol once a week. That’s the equivalent of a 125-mil glass of wine. Our large glasses are double that. So: no, you can’t have your wine. Can I serve you a soft drink?”

That’s pretty much what happened in Liverpool’s Pi bar last week. The pregnant customer – or prospective customer – demanded her wine, was refused again and walked out in embarrassment. The bar’s management later apologized for their bartender’s overzealous paternalism, even though, technically, he was within his rights. The bar’s management reserve the right not to serve customers, so he was merely exercising that right. All the same, the incident forces us to wonder whether the bartender was morally right? Should he have assumed the position of moral guardian? A similar case occurred earlier this year in Australia. According to Aussie law bartenders are bound to serve customers unless they suspect they are intoxicated. They still have every right to inform pregnant customers of the dangers to themselves and their unborn child.

Here’s the case for the bartender’s defence. He or she was a thoughtful, caring, considerate human being, obliging and accommodating, but mindful of the dangers to which the customer would be exposed should she drink the wine. Unselfishly, the bartender offered helpful advice on the dangers of alcohol and of the potential damage to the unborn baby. The refusal was a generous, compassionate and altruistic act of a person who exemplifies all the wholesome qualities of a culture in which people cooperate for the common good. After all societies are based on collective endeavour, not conflict. The case against the bartender is simpler: it was none of his or her business and the impromptu policy of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of customers was arrogant and paternalistic — and reflected all that’s wrong with the cradle-to-grave nannyism that characterizes Britain today.

On reflection, the bartender could perhaps have opted for a slightly different approach, issuing friendly advice, but emphasizing that he wouldn’t prevent the customer buying the wine. Then, if the customer insisted, the bartender would have a clear conscience. And, if they couldn’t bring themselves to do it, the bartender could maybe call a colleague. But these options fudge the issue: does a bar have the right to assume the position of guardian, or is it just there to sell booze? It’s no use comparing this to the smoking ban, which is only partly designed to protect would-be smokers; it’s also to support the comfort and wellbeing of non-smokers.  Car seatbelts? In the UK, the compulsory wearing of these was debated for twenty years before being drafted into law in 1991. The moral debate concerned whether you should advise, counsel, recommend and provide guidelines for the benefit of citizens, or just compel them to take care of themselves. The same question can be asked of many other aspects of social and personal life where harm is involved. Do we, as individual controllers of our own destinies have the right to engage in behaviour that we know is potentially, or actually damaging to our wellbeing? Or is society under obligation to protect us from ourselves? We each have our own answers. My guess is that many of you, placed in the position of the bartender, would have poured the wine and moved on to the next customer, thinking, “none of my business.” But maybe it is our business.

The World Health Organization defines public health as: “Organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole. Its activities aim to provide conditions in which people can be healthy and focus on entire populations, not on individual patients or diseases. Thus, public health is concerned with the total system and not only the eradication of a particular disease.” Maybe our seemingly intrusive bartender in Liverpool was in fact just a principled advocate of public health.