Do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention really want to butt their scientific noses into the business of women and drinking? Well yes … sort of … but it really depends.
The CDC has been making headlines for a recent news release warning that 3.3 million women who drink and don’t use birth control run the risk of exposing a potential baby to fetal alcohol syndrome.
The CDC reported that three out of four women who want to get pregnant “as soon as possible” don’t stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.
“Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant,” warned CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D. “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?”
Many media outlets took this as a recommendation from the CDC that all women of childbearing age who aren’t on birth control should not be drinking alcohol.
“The CDC’s incredibly condescending warning to young women,” said a blog in the Washington Post.
“Protect Your Womb From the Devil Drink,” blared the Atlantic.
But shaming and guilting wasn’t quite the purpose of the message, the CDC insists.
“We definitely didn’t make any recommendations for women who are pre-pregnant,” Lela McKnight-Eily, an epidemiologist and clinical psychologist on the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention Team at the CDC, told the Huffington Post. “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.”
The CDC said the warning was intended for the women who reported trying to get pregnant right away, but who continued to drink while they tried to conceive.
“Every woman who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant — and her partner — want a healthy baby. But they may not be aware that drinking any alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can cause a range of disabilities for their child,” said Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.
“It is critical for healthcare providers to assess a woman’s drinking habits during routine medical visits; advise her not to drink at all if she is pregnant, trying to get pregnant or sexually active and not using birth control; and recommend services if she needs help to stop drinking.”
What the report said
The report surveyed more than 4,300 non-pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 44. The highest risks for fetal alcohol syndrome were in women aged 25-29, women who were married or cohabiting, and women who had given birth to one child already. There was also an increased risk in current smokers over nonsmokers, as well as a link between the mother’s level of education and the risks of alcohol-related problems.
“There isn’t a new guideline. It’s been recommended for decades that women not drink during pregnancy,” McKnight-Eily said. “We think that there are a lot of mixed messages out there, and we want to give women a clear message that there is no safe time, there is no safe amount or type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.”
Credit: Mary Jo Dilonardo