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Yet another reason to drink: Preachy CDC alcohol guidelines treat all women as potentially pregnant

An attempt to raise awareness on the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome goes too far


Mary Elizabeth Williams
February 5, 2016 12:43AM (UTC)

There's got to be a better way you could have put that, CDC. In an effort to raise awareness of and prevent fetal alcohol syndrome, on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued sweeping recommendations on alcohol consumption. And they got a mite preachy about it.

"More than 3 million US women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, having sex, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy. 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. This means a woman might be drinking and exposing her developing baby to alcohol without knowing it…. Why take the risk?" the CDC asks. "Women who are pregnant or who might be pregnant should be aware that any level of alcohol use could harm their baby." 

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Most of us who are reasonable adults who also approve of red wine and birth control understand that drinking needs to be done responsibly. And it's fine to issue reminders about the potential consequences of drinking while pregnant. Last month, in a heartbreaking and widely shared story, the Washington Post's Alexandra Rockey Fleming told the story of Kathy Mitchell and her 43 year-old daughter Karli. As a pregnant teen, Mitchell would "put away a bottle of wine, or four to five beers, during a weekend." Now, Karli remains fixed at the developmental age of a first-grader, Kathy and is vice president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, working to educate potential mothers on the risks of drinking.

In their warning to women, the CDC notes that for pregnant women, "drinking too much" — defined as eight or more drinks a week or four or more drinks at a time — offers a litany of potential problems for both mother and baby, including miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol syndrome. But in a handy infographic, it also warns that for "any" woman, it carries the risk of "injuries, violence, heart disease, cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, fertility problems, and unintended pregnancy." And this is where have to pause and take some much needed umbrage. Any woman? Really?

As Alexandra Petri writes in the Washington Post, "The fact that research suggests you should stop drinking not just when you know you are pregnant but when you start trying to get pregnant is useful information. Nobody is arguing with that." The problem is with the apparent message that "Now, it turns out, you can impregnate yourself by drinking too much." She adds, "It’s not because you drink that violence happens, or that pregnancy happens, or that STDs happen… Every time someone says that Women Drinking is the risk factor for violence and pregnancy and STDs, not other people who choose to take advantage of them or resort to violence, you pour a little more fuel onto the raging bonfire of This Isn’t On Me, It’s On The Women Who Are Accountable For My Behavior."

On Grounded Parents, writer Steph — a mother of two and stepmother of two more — opined that "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." And writing for .mic, Jenny Kutner put it this way: "So, basically, if you are a woman who has ever had unprotected sex and you have a uterus that could potentially be inhabited, you have two options: Either shut your legs or stick to club soda." 

To be fair to the CDC, it does separately note in a 2014 update that "Men are more likely than women to drink excessively," and that "Men are also more likely than women to take other risks (e.g., drive fast or without a safety belt), when combined with excessive drinking, further increasing their risk of injury or death." It does not however issue any guidelines for men regarding their drinking. And in much the same way that the spread of the Zika virus has been turned into a "Ladies, don't get pregnant" story, the CDC's recommendations presume an awful lot about women's behavior and ignores a lot about their access to birth control and abortion, and oddly inconsistent in its message when it comes to "excessive" drinking and "any level of alcohol use" at all. But more than that, they yet again put the entire burden of responsible behavior upon women.

Watch our video summary below:
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The CDC Blames Women For Their Own Unwanted Pregnancies


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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