Why the CDC’s Advice for Some Women not to Drink Isn’t So Bad
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The CDC has just recommended that women who are sexually active but not using birth control should stop drinking all alcohol. This has a number of my feminist colleagues quite upset, as it appears to be part of a stubbornly pernicious movement to treat all women as pre-pregnant, and to treat all fetuses as the be-all end-all of our decision-making processes.
You may have noticed some of this if you or a loved one has been pregnant at any point in the past ten years — pregnancy has become an incredibly anxiety-ridden event where women tend to be put under a microscope to determine if their every move may help or harm their fetus. Sushi, lunchmeat, eggs, pain-killers, and yes, alcohol, all need to be carefully evaluated for their relative risks, and many people look down on any pregnant person who consumes any of the above, plus a long list of other lurking dangers. As Ruth Graham writes in Slate, it’s this sort of thing that “has turned modern pregnancy into a nine-month slog of joyless paranoia.”
It’s also annoying because it comes at a time when women’s reproductive health is seriously at risk, and not from alcohol. In Texas, they defunded Planned Parenthood and immediately saw a spike in childbirth among poor women. So basically we are forcing women to have babies and then getting all haughty about how they’re having them.
With all that said and agreed to, I don’t actually agree with the blanket condemnation of the CDC recommendation. Graham and others point out that the evidence we have thus far suggests that mild drinking during pregnancy just isn’t a big deal. That’s true! However, it’s mostly true of later in a pregnancy — the third trimester is about when it seems you’re pretty much out of the woods and can maybe enjoy a glass of wine every day if you want.
But in the first trimester, the evidence isn’t so positive. Some research has suggested that mild to moderate drinking in the first trimester is fine — ie, up to 1 drink a day. More research shows that any amount of alcohol in the first trimester carries serious risks. The drinks add up more quickly and cause more damage that early in the pregnancy, which can often lead to miscarriages or problems like fetal alcohol syndrome. In fact, drinking alcohol before you even realize you’re pregnant can cause adverse problems. Is it guaranteed to screw up your fetus? No. But is it a risk that you may want to keep in mind? Absolutely.
The CDC recommendation isn’t for all women — it’s directed at women who are having sex without any kind of protection. I think that still isn’t specific enough, and it should be for heterosexual, cis women (and homosexual trans men) with working uteruses who are having sex without any kind of protection, but I get that that’s a mouthful.
I submit that these people largely fall into two categories: those who are ignorant and don’t understand that their actions can easily lead to pregnancy, and those who accept or even hope for pregnancy as an end result. For the first group, the CDC recommendation is useless. The CDC also recommends you use some kind of birth control if you don’t want to get pregnant. Obviously they’re not listening to the CDC. This recommendation is not for them.
And for the last group, who aren’t using birth control and know pregnancy may result, this is definitely advice they should be interested in. Consider that 20% of Americans drink on average more than 15 drinks per week, and 1 in 6 Americans drinks 8 drinks in one session about 4 times a month. I find it very reasonable to imagine a person who, say, downs 10 glasses of wine in one weekend, thinking that if they do find out they’re pregnant, they’ll just stop drinking at that point — not realizing how early the damage can be done.
And one last note: the CDC also has recommendations for men who are pre-paternal. You know, men with working penises who are having hetero sex without birth control: excessive alcohol use can negatively affect your sperm and make you impotent or infertile.
So while I do think that parts of the CDC press release are fear-mongering and anti-scientific, as when it states there’s no safe amount of alcohol to drink at any point in a pregnancy, I do think it’s decent advice to people who may get pregnant in the near future: cut out the booze now if you want your best chance of a healthy, happy little fetus.