Are you a woman? Do you enjoy the occasional glass of wine? Well, stop drinking if you maybe, possibly, could get pregnant—that was the message sent yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US. According to the report, “More than 3 million US women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol.” Alcohol exposure during pregnancy can, of course, lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which are lifelong physical, intellectual and behavioural disabilities. So, if you’re having sex and not using birth control, the CDC says, then stop drinking altogether.
There was a strong and immediate reaction to the CDC’s report across the Internet yesterday. As it turns out, women don’t appreciate being told what to do, especially when the recommendations rub up against our reproductive organs and sense of bodily autonomy. Women resented the idea that, simply because they have uteruses, their every action could be seen as risky for a potential baby. It’s not enough that a pregnant woman is all of society’s concern, the thinking goes—now all women are.
Huh, I guess centuries of exclusion from politics and the workforce simply because we happen to be the ones to carry babies to term has gotten our backs up. Go figure.
I have personally had one unplanned pregnancy and two planned pregnancies and I can guarantee that I enjoyed a few drinks in the weeks that led up to all three of those pregnancies. And guess what? All my kids are healthy and thriving. The CDC’s report says that “about half of all US pregnancies are unplanned and, even if planned, most women do not know they are pregnant until they are 4-6 weeks into the pregnancy.” Of course, given that by the time you miss your first period, you are already four weeks pregnant, that sounds a lot worse than it is.
I don’t actually think the CDC is guilty of trying to subjugate women and turn us all into nothing but baby vessels in-the-making. I spoke with Toronto paediatrician Anne Wormsbecker about the CDC’s latest recommendations and she noted the report said that three out of four women who want to get pregnant are still drinking. “The current recommendation that any alcohol be avoided during both pregnancy and while trying to conceive is in place because fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are very serious and cause lifelong disabilities,” she said. It’s true—not only is FASD a serious problem, it’s also (as the CDC report points out) 100 percent preventable.
But the CDC’s recommendation treats women like idiots. There seems to be an underlying assumption that we women aren’t able to manage our own fertility. Should the woman who is desperate to have a baby but finds herself facing yet another negative pregnancy test not be allowed to seek solace in a glass of wine? Are the couples who think, “Hey, let’s stop using protection and see what happens!” and celebrate their anniversary with a glass of champagne putting their potential baby at risk? C’mon, CDC. Stop insulting our intelligence.
Wormsbecker sighed when I brought this up. “Yes,” she says. “That’s the nature of public health messaging in general. It’s the most utilitarian way of getting the message out to the most people and uses sweeping, broad generalizations. There’s no subtlety, so it’s easy to understand.” Wormsbecker pointed out that what the CDC has issued is a report on research findings (and what can be done with the results) as opposed to an official guideline, which is a much more stringent set of recommendations. And, of course, all that research is based in the US and doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality in Canada.
So what about Canada? Nancy Poole, the lead prevention researcher for the Canada FASD Research Network, is not a fan of the CDC’s recommendations at all. “In a society that does not offer free and effective birth control for all women, we are forcing 30 years of abstinence on women, as if women’s lives were unimportant and their only potential roles are as child bearers,” she says. “Now perhaps we should suggest that all men abstain from alcohol due to the documented negative impact on women’s and children’s health when men drink and are violent?”
Now wouldn’t that be an interesting recommendation!
Infographic below provided by the Centers for Disease Control: