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CDC Recommends That Women Not Using Birth Control Stop Drinking Alcohol

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Yesterday, the CDC issued new guidelines warning that anyone who could conceivably (no pun intended) be pregnant should stop drinking alcohol because, in their words, “why take the risk?” The new guidelines are intended to prevent instances of fetal alcohol syndrome, and argue that a large percentage of American women are at risk of unknowingly drinking while pregnant:

An estimated 3.3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, according to the latest CDC Vital Signs report released today. The report also found that 3 in 4 women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.

Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clarified the guidelines yesterday for reporters:

About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking.

The risk is real.Why take the chance?

The answer to “Why take the chance,” of course, is, as Olga Khazan and Julie Beck argue in their excellent Atlantic piece on the subject, because drinking responsibly can be a fun and socially fulfilling way to pass the time; and at a certain point it’s simply not sustainable for people to have to define their lives by a hypothetical. It seems reasonable to me that people who are actively trying to conceive should at the very least heavily monitor their alcohol consumption, and if you have reason to expect you’re pregnant it’s obviously best to take precautions, but calling for all fertile people to act as if pregnancy is an immediate inevitability presumes that women are mothers first, and individuals second.

It’s absolutely commendable that the CDC is increasing awareness surrounding fetal alcohol syndrome, and it’s understandable that an organization like the CDC would fall on the more cautionary side of the “can people drink during pregnancy?” debate. But the phrasing of the new guidelines has understandably rankled many. Not only are they predictably cissexist and heteronormative, but the CDC also implies that maybe women should just not be drinking, full stop. This infographic in particular gave me pause:

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The mention of “injuries/violence” under the “risks” section strikes me as tacit victim-blaming, and including the risks that drinking can have even for women who can’t get pregnant seems a little puritanical. I don’t know, it’s complicated. Substance abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome are obviously important subjects that should be taken seriously by caregivers and patients alike, but for me at least, these guidelines seem unrealistic and condescending. It’s also worth nothing that this isn’t the first time the CDC has encouraged women of child-bearing age to take similar precautions; in 2006, they released guidelines encouraging women between 15-44 to maintain a healthy weight and take folic acid supplements to prepare for possible pregnancies.

Obviously there are countless reasons why a person could be pregnant without knowing it, from inadequate women’s health care to various health conditions. But the CDC’s new guidelines just don’t seem like a realistic way of addressing the risks that can arise during surprise pregnancies, and it’s frustrating to see increased societal pressure on women to abstain from ‘unladylike’ activities like drinking for the good of society (the CDC cautions that women who drink while pregnant cost the U.S. $5.5 billion annually) at the same time as our access to relevant resources like birth control continues to be at risk.

I don’t know. It’s an important, emotional, and complicated conversation. What do you think, gang?

(via Jezebel, image via Shutterstock)

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