Ladies: No beer for you! Photo by Jaryl Cabuco.
On Tuesday, the Center of Disease Control released new recommendations saying that all sexually active women of child-bearing age should stop drinking alcohol if they’re not on birth control.
The guidelines, headlined, “Alcohol and Pregnancy: Why Take the Risk?” say that because half of all pregnancies are unintended, women who are drinking and not using birth control could at any time wind up exposing fetuses to alcohol. The announcement is accompanied by an infographic that lists “sexually transmitted diseases” and “unintended pregnancies” as risks for “any woman” who drinks more than eight drinks a week.
Imagine for a moment an alternate reality where the CDC recommended that all fertile men refrain from consuming any alcohol unless they sign a pledge to always use a condom. The government would fund a campaign to get bars to use condoms as coasters. We’d throw boozy parties for dudes who got vasectomies. After all, men drink far more than women do and are twice as likely to become alcoholics.
Would that idea ever be seriously considered? Nope, because it’s ludicrous. And it’s just as absurd to recommend that all sexually active women swear off alcohol.
The backlash to this announcement has been swift. The recommendations are part of a cultural problem where the health of fetuses is valued and protected over the lives of women and chronically overlooks the role men play in creating pregnancies (case in point: Obamacare covers the cost of female forms of birth control, but not vasectomies). There is a history of well-intentioned public health campaigns shaming women for drinking at all. As blogger Steph at Grounded Parents wrote, the CDC’s idea that all women should be viewed as “pre-pregnant” is offensive for several reasons:
“While the U.S. government has not yet formalized restrictions on what I can and can’t do as a woman of childbearing age, this culture shift – viewing women as vessels for potential babies – scares me. I am an adult human. I am whole. I am not less important than my potential future unborn fetuses. To suggest that is offensive. I am not going to make a slippery slope argument, because I think we’ve already reached the bottom of the slope. Our culture doesn’t value women and girls.”
There are many more holes in the CDC’s guidelines. For example, the announcement assumes that women who are having sex are having heterosexual sex. Plus, the guidelines fluctuate between discussing risks for women who drink “too much” and the recommendation that doctors advise all women who are drinking and not using birth control to refrain from alcohol entirely. The idea that women should stop drinking full-stop because it could be unsafe for a future fetus is overblown. Women should be able to make informed decisions about what’s best for themselves and whether that picture includes birth control.
The rules are well-intended—they’re meant to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome, which is definitely a tragic and avoidable public health problem that occurs when pregnant people drink excessively. But the science on whether light drinking during pregnancy is bad for the fetus is murky. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that no amount of alcohol should be considered safe during pregnancy. But as Ruth Graham at Slate sums up:
“With the obligatory caveat that heavy drinking in pregnancy can be extremely damaging, the commonly repeated notion that there is 'no known safe amount of alcohol' for pregnant women is seriously misleading. As the economist Emily Oster pointed out in her 2013 book Expecting Better, there is also no ‘proven safe’ level of Tylenol or caffeine, and yet both are fine in moderation during pregnancy. Oster pored through reams of research on alcohol and pregnancy for her book and concluded that there is simply no scientific evidence that light drinking during pregnancy impacts a baby’s health.”
The bottom line is that excessive drinking is a health problem for everyone—men and women included. The CDC’s job is to protect public health, but to focus solely on suggesting that women shouldn’t drink alcohol at all seems outlandishly outdated. The announcement feels more in line with finger-wagging aimed at women drinking in general than a practical idea for making society safer and healthier.