On Tuesday, the Center for Disease Control released a statement recommending that sexually active women who are not on birth control should refrain from drinking alcohol. Since the statement’s release, the CDC has received harsh backlash from women citing the recommendation as antiquated and extreme.
During pregnancy, if women consume alcohol, they are at risk of giving their newborns fetal alcohol syndrome. This syndrome can encompass symptoms such as learning disabilities and heart defects.
Women’s Studies Prof. Joanne Motino Bailey, director of the Nurse Midwifery Service at the University, said she thought that while there is some merit to the CDC’s recommendation, the way it was released assumed a lot about sexually active women.
“I have no idea what their tactic is in this very broad, far-reaching justification,” she said. “I think it would be totally appropriate for women who are planning a pregnancy to avoid alcohol; that makes complete sense. But this broad-arching idea, assuming women are having sex with men, is making men’s responsibility not even considered.”
LSA senior Stephanie Mecham, director of circle engagement for Lean In at the University, echoed Bailey’s sentiments, saying that the CDC’s statement leaves out certain subsets of women and leads to questionable assumptions about who is sexually active and in what way.
“I think it’s really problematic because it definitely excludes a lot of people. It excludes a lot of people who identify as queer or lesbian and people who are infertile or unable to have children,” she said. “In the phrasing of their recommendations they just said any young women who are having sex and not on birth control need to be worried about being pregnant, which obviously isn’t factual. It just marginalizes a lot of people who are already excluded from the mainstream.”
One of the concerns cited in the CDC’s recommendation was the number of unplanned pregnancies in the United States, meaning women may not be aware that they are pregnant and at risk of giving their newborns fetal alcohol syndrome. Bailey said about 50 percent of pregnancies are unintended, a fact the CDC emphasized as a reason for restricting alcohol use if women are not using a form of birth control.
Bailey said though avoiding alcohol makes sense for women planning a pregnancy, there is conflicting empirical support for the true effects of drinking on fetuses, and noted the CDC’s approach is severe.
“Fetal alcohol syndrome is a real thing,” she said. “As far as we know, fetal alcohol syndrome occurs in women who are drinking very large amounts of alcohol, like a fifth a day. Even of those women who are chronic alcoholics who drink that much, not all children that they give birth to while they’re consuming that alcohol are going to have fetal alcohol syndrome. We don’t really know what is different in each gestating embryo and fetus.”
She added that other countries have different approaches to alcohol during sexually active times for women as well as for pregnancy. This, she said, adds to the discrepancies surrounding the true risk associated with alcohol consumption.
“There’s never been data that people support across the board that says ‘this is a safe amount’ in the United States,” she said. “In Europe, it’s country specific. In France, it’s totally acceptable while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding to drink a glass or two each day. Nobody warns people against it — it’s not a problem whatsoever. They do not have a high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome.”
Noting that other countries utilize a different approach, Mecham said she thinks the CDC’s approach included tactics that were not effective.
“I think the way they framed it in their initial announcement definitely had a shock factor,” she said. “It got a lot of people’s attention and I think it obviously worked well in that way because everyone’s talking about it, but unfortunately they’re talking about it in horrible terms.”
Bailey said though the recommendation focused on alcohol consumption, in a sense it was symptomatic of societal problems — particularly the lack of public access to contraception.
“It speaks more to our larger society,” she said. “We suck at any realistic kind of sex education and access to birth control also sucks. For example, there’s a really nice study that just got published this week from "The New England Journal of Medicine.” Texas defunded Planned Parenthood for birth control access. It’s a study comparing before and after as far as women’s access to birth control pills and long-acting forms of contraception. As expected, access dropped significantly — use and access.”
Along with its suggestion to avoid alcohol, the CDC also mentioned that alcohol can lead to injuries and violence for women as well as increased risk for STDs. Bailey said although this may be true, that kind of phrasing suggests women alone are responsible for these risk factors.
“If you’re assuming heterosexual intercourse, it’s assuming men are predators, so women, if they drink alcohol, are then more likely to be victims, which is actually true in our patriarchal, male dominated, abusive society,” she said. “How do you spin this? Because this puts all responsibility in women’s hands. All of these assumptions just assume the world is just the way it is and we just need women to protect themselves because we can’t control anything that men do.”
Mecham agreed and said victim-blaming has a history in the United States that needs fixing.
“It also starts to victim blame and punishes women for their choices,” she said. “Our government has a really long history of saying ‘women here’s what you need to do to protect yourselves from violence’ but we never really address why men are being violent.”
In response to the widespread criticism about the recommendation, Anne Schuchat, the deputy director of the CDC, said in an interview with The New York Times on Saturday that the recommendation wasn’t as clear as the agency had hoped.
“I absolutely respect women, and want them to be empowered to make the choices that are important to them,” Schuchat told the Times. “Some of the coverage that portrayed the C.D.C. as only thinking about women as incubating babies was a big misunderstanding of our attitude.”