The CDC's Pregnancy & Drinking Guidelines Are Nothing to Freak Out About

wineThe CDC raised eyebrows (and ire) this week when the media thought it released guidelines stating that all women of childbearing age who aren't on birth control should avoid drinking in an attempt to cut down on rates of fetal alcohol syndrome. Headlines like "Protect Your Womb From the Devil Drink" and "An Unrealistic Warning From the CDC to Women: Don't Drink Unless You're Using Birth Control" made the recommendations seem reductive and condescending -- but the CDC has since clarified its statements. 


Though initial coverage of the report seemed to suggest otherwise, Lela McKnight-Eily (epidemiologist and clinical psychologist on the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention Team at the CDC) says that its warning was really meant for women who are actively trying to conceive. Which is understandable, given that -- according to the report -- three in four women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.

"We definitely didn't make any recommendations for women who are pre-pregnant," McKnight-Eily told the Huffington Post.

She continued: "It's more a matter of women knowing and being informed that if they are drinking alcohol, sexually active, and not using birth control, that they could be exposing a baby to a teratogen, and that could cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders."

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Well, that's better. Because if the CDC really thought it was okay to tell an entire population of women that they shouldn't drink just in case they maybe get pregnant, that would have been a pretty epic case of scientific mansplaining. First of all, it would basically be saying that women can't tell the difference between binge-drinking and having a glass of wine with dinner. But that's not what the report really said -- what it really said was this:

Women of reproductive age should be informed of the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy, and contraception should be recommended, as appropriate, for women who do not want to become pregnant. Women wanting a pregnancy should be advised to stop drinking at the same time contraception is discontinued.

Pretty reasonable, and definitely not the paternalistic nightmare the media immediately made it out to be. Still, there might be an underlying insulting tone that people were picking up on, considering this follow-up comment given by Coleen Boyle, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities:

It’s probable that that one glass of wine is not going to do anything, but you tell women that it’s safe to drink in pregnancy and then you end up with all this fetal alcohol syndrome -- and it is entirely preventable.

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Because that message is kind of saying that women can't be trusted to control themselves around booze? Hmph. The CDC probably didn't mean that either. We hope.

All that aside, the recommendations seem sound. As the report points out, half of pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and apparently no difference in alcohol consumption was found between women who were trying to get pregnant and women who weren't. 

Of course, the CDC's clarification was necessary, as it is simply unrealistic -- and quite patriarchal -- to tell half the population to avoid alcohol if they are of childbearing age. Better to actually inform them of the risks of drinking while pregnant and encourage them to talk to their doctors throughout the conception process. Advocate for pre-prenatal care. And as if it weren't already abundantly obvious, make sure birth control is readily available to all women of childbearing age who want and need it!


Image via Jing/Flickr

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