The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently issued new alcohol consumption recommendations for women: According to the CDC, if you're not on birth control, you should consider not drinking at all. Due to research into the damaging effects of alcohol during fetal development, the CDC claims there's no safe way to drink if pregnant, so women who could possibly conceive ought to abstain from drinking in order to preserve the life of hypothetical unborn children.
"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," states the CDC's report. "This means a woman might be drinking and exposing her developing baby to alcohol without knowing it." Therefore, "it is recommended that women who are pregnant or might be pregnant not drink alcohol at all."
The devastating impact of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FSAD) includes physical, mental, and learning problems that work in tandem to disable those affected, the CDC explains. According to their data, 1 in 20 school students may have FASD. "Why take the risk?" they ask. However, while protecting kids from in utero damage is undeniably important, critics argue that the idea of advising women to abstain completely from alcohol because of not-yet-existent fetuses hearkens to classic sexist attitudes and policies that diminish the agency of women in favor of her ability to carry a child.
There just isn't very good science to back up the warning that pregnant women should abstain from alcohol entirely.
Emily is a writer in Brooklyn who discovered she was pregnant in 2014. She wasn't looking to get pregnant, but she also wasn't avoiding the possibility. "It took me by surprise, I think because I'd made it 32 years not getting pregnant at all, despite being sort of constitutionally disorganized," she tells Broadly. The night before she took her pregnancy test, she'd been out drinking with colleagues.
The fact she'd consumed alcohol while pregnant worried her, she says. "But I also suspected that my worry (like most of my worries) was not rational." She confirmed the result with her doctor and says she was honest about her alcohol consumption with the nurse who helped her, explaining that she'd recently held her bachelorette party. "[The nurse] immediately put my fears to rest in a very empathetic way," Emily says. "I then found my way to Expecting Better by Emily Oster, which made it clear to me that there just isn't very good science to back up the warning that pregnant women should abstain from alcohol entirely."
In an article for Slate from 2013, Oster details the controversy that ensued following her statements that drinking some alcohol while pregnant is, in fact, not dangerous. There are conflicting expert opinions on this issue, making it difficult to pinpoint the truth. Oster whittles her inquiry down to one basic question: "What is the impact of having an occasional drink, assuming that you never overdo it?" After reviewing multiple studies, she found they "show no difference between the children of women who abstain and those who drink up to a drink a day."
A lot of these warnings seem incredibly condescending.
As to the question posed by the CDC in their recent recommendation, "Why take the risk?" Oster provided an answer in her article for Slate three years ago. At the time, she wrote, "This ignores the fact that we are always making choices that could carry some risk and have no benefit to the baby. Driving in a car carries some risk to your baby, and your fetus does not benefit from that vacation you took." Yet her views have been called irresponsible by FASD organizations, and many disagree with her—including, now, our country's leading public health institute.
But Emily points out the patronizing and potentially subjective aspects of such reccomendations. She says, "A lot of these warnings seem incredibly condescending. They seem to suppose that women can't tell the difference between a glass of wine and a bottle of it, or won't be able to control themselves if they drink any alcohol at all." Emily provides her own first-hand experience with this issue, explaining that after her first trimester she drank a glass of wine whenever she felt like it, and would "absolutely do it again."
To her, the CDC's recommendation for women to abstain from drinking is implausible and rooted in deeper issues of sexism in the United States."[The CDC recommendation] seems insane, but also in keeping with general societal attitudes about how women's bodies are public property and only useful as potential vessels for babies," she says.