The CDC Tells Women Not on Birth Control That They Can’t Drink. Seriously?

8344461710_fdb4c30bd9_zThere is a clear difference between disease control and prevention, and outright paternalism and mistrust of women. Based on recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the organization seems to have difficulty making that distinction.

On Tuesday, the CDC released a set of guidelines on alcohol consumption and pregnancy, recommending that any women who “could get pregnant” should avoid drinking alcohol unless they are using some form of contraception. The CDC “Vital Signs report estimates that “3.3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy.”

So according to the CDC, if you are a woman of childbearing age who is having sex and not using contraception, you’re basically already pregnant with a “developing baby.” (Congratulations!) If you drink, this “developing baby,” which may already be inside of you, may develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which “can cause lasting physical, behavioral and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child’s lifetime.” You could, unknowingly, be potentially damaging the entire lifetime of a child . . . that does not exist.

If you are a woman with the physiological ability to become pregnant, your role as a potential baby incubator apparently supersedes your right to make decisions regarding your own body. It is one thing to weigh the autonomy of a fetus versus that of the person gestating it, but considering the welfare of non-existent hypothetical fetuses at every stage in a woman’s fertility is an entirely different level of absurdity.

Following this logic, any man who is capable of impregnating a woman should also avoid alcohol, as a recent study has shown that habitual alcohol usage contributes to adverse effects on semen quality, and that could harm a hypothetical future child. Not only that, but drinking alcohol could increase their risk of having sex with a woman and impregnating her with this subpar semen. And unlike women, men are typically fertile most of their adult livescertainly by the time they reach legal drinking age.

Basically, this is a modern form of Prohibition that targets women capable of having babies.

The guidelines absolutely smack of paternalism, most visibly in the heading “We know what works,” and in an infographic entitled “Drinking too much can have many risks for women.” In fact, that particular infographic advises “any women”not just those who are pregnantto avoid consuming alcohol because of the increased risk of “injuries/violence.” While that could include injuries sustained from tripping and falling while drunk, for example, it reads as yet another instance of putting the onus on the woman not to put herself in situations that might result in her rape or assault.

The same infographic also informs us that “drinking too much” carries the risk of “sexually transmitted diseases” and “unintended pregnancies” for “any woman.” Maybe the CDC missed that day of health class, but in order become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection, typically some sort of sexual contact with another person must occur.

This blatant mistrust in women and disregard for our autonomy is offensive across the political spectrum. Alcohol consumption is not limited to the same demographics that support access to contraception or sex education; many who are opposed to birth control for religious or other moral reasons may not be opposed to drinking alcohol. By recommending that all women of childbearing years who wish to drink alcohol use some form of contraception, it creates a moral dilemma for those unwilling to use contraception, but still enjoy having a few glasses of wine with dinner.

The CDC’s recommendations also pose a problem for those with limited access to contraceptives. As it turns out, contraception (under many circumstances) is not freeaccording to the Guttmacher Institute, “The cost of contraceptive services and supplies can be considerable.” This helps explain why poor women are less likely to use birth controlwhich means they are being, lo and behold, disproportionately targeted by these recommendations.

As it stands now, women are constantly questioned about our reproductive decisions. The mere fact that we are able to become pregnant and give birth makes many people perceive themselves as stakeholders in our bodies. It’s not enough to heavily regulate women’s access to health care during pregnancythey also feel as though it is their obligation to monitor us throughout our entire fertile period in order to protect potential “developing babies” from our misinformed, poor decisions.

So why stop at alcohol? What about other risk-taking behaviors that women of childbearing age might engage in without using contraception? Should all women in physically high-risk professions be required to be on birth control in the event that they unknowingly become pregnant and then injured on a construction site or in a professional soccer game?

This isn’t just a reproductive rights issueit’s yet another example of women being treated like feeble-minded beings without decisional capacity. Yes, fetal alcohol syndrome is a preventable problem that should be taken seriously, and the CDC is right to address it. It would just be nice if women’s rights to autonomy and the ability to make informed decisions were taken as seriously as the rights of a non-existent hypothetical fetus.

This story first appeared at The Establishment. Read more here:

The True Tale Of Obsession And Shame Behind ‘The Price Of Salt’

How Law & Order: SVU Is (Imperfectly) Teaching A Generation About Consent

In ‘The Hateful Eight,’ Nasty, Vile, Spiteful Villainy Knows No Gender

Photo via Flickr user AwayWeGo210 licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Elizabeth-YukoElizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer who specializes in reproductive and sexual health ethics, the ethics of human enhancement and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Salon and Bitch and she hosts a monthly show called Let’s Get Ethical! at Q.E.D. in Astoria, Queens.


  1. The other thing that bothers me about this — and it’s true for many warnings about drinking – is the assumption one drinks only to get drunk, that one always gets drunk when one drinks, that anyone who drinks is okay with getting habitually drunk. Those of us who have a glass of wine with dinner and then stop are lumped in either with binge drinkers or Prohibition types, depending on how the conversation goes.

  2. I frequently like Ms. Mag articles, but I disagree with this one. The CDC makes recommendations for general health. If you’re choosing to be sexually active without birth control, and choosing to drink, there are health consequences. Yes, some of those consequences fall on the unborn child, but some on you, too. Choose wisely. If you choose to be sexually active and use birth control, feel free to drink. But alcohol and pregnancy don’t mix, so the CDC recommends you choose not to do so. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

  3. When men drink alcohol it can damage their sperm and cause birth defects but that’s okay. Go ahead and drink men. Your sperm is magical.

  4. Michelle Hackler says:

    If you don’t get defensive about the issue, the CDC is warning about the effects of alcohol on newly formed fetuses. If there is alcohol in your system and you happen to get pregnant it might have an adverse effect on the developing child. Missing a period is a common indication that you might be pregnant, a pregnant woman might be consuming an amount of alcohol during her first month of pregnancy that might harm the developing baby. Any mother just might want to be aware of that. This has nothing to do with a woman being a baby mill. When you have sex getting pregnant is always a possibility especially if you are not using birth control. So a person may just have to make a choice between sex and booze.

  5. This article seems really sensationalized. Almost all of the information is geared towards women who are pregnant or actively trying to get pregnant as soon as possible and who really shouldn’t be drinking. The warnings about drinking and STD’s/ accidental pregnancy are the same warnings included in the men’s section about drinking. In fact, they even do a great job of warning men that drinking can lead to risk-taking behavior, including sexual assault, and that men on average get hurt more and have more alcohol related accidents than women when drinking. If anything it makes men sound more susceptible.

  6. I think this is a little harsh. It’s good for people to know about all the consequences of their actions, but men have related actions too. It should have addressed that.

  7. The analogy you make with the male scenario is not exact that creates a conflationary scenario.

    A man whose sperm can be detrimentally changed by drinking faces the moral problem of “is it morally wrong to drink if the life I then go on to create might not be as optimal as it would have been if I hadn’t?”

    A woman who is drinking while potentially pregnant faces the moral problem of “is it morally wrong to drink if the potential life that already exists, and which I might want to bring into life, would become less optimal than it was going to be if I didn’t?”

    Not commenting on the answer to either to these questions, because, well, they’re hard questions. However, it should be clear this situation can’t be compared to that of men and their sperm quality directly.

  8. WTF? There is no evidence that having one drink of alcohol will adversely affect a developing fetus, full stop. Just because there is no evidence that it won’t cause harm does not automatically mean it will cuse harm. As a nurse I speak with pregnant women every day who are freaked out about taking Tylenol because it might hurt their baby and it’s crazy! The truth is we don’t know what level of any drug causes problems, alcohol included. And we aren’t ever going to know because who is going to sign up for THAT study, eh? “You’re pregnant and we’d like you to take this drug and we’ll monitor i it harms your baby.” “Sign me up!” What happened to common sense, people?! I’m surprised we’re not extinct as a species by now… facepalm!

  9. Wendy Introwitz Pareene says:

    I read the CDC statement and find it is all about informing women and suggesting mefical help if drinking is a problem. As a woman and a strong liberal I find nothing wrong with the advisory. Being offended by an effort to spread accurate medical information to the public is just manufactured outrage and drama drama drama.

  10. Daniel Furey says:

    The CDC page is clearly cautioning women from drinking who are “trying to get pregnant”. Your article is incredibly misleading, and it should be taken down as it is essentially fiction. Bioethics? This is pop news that isn’t even true.

  11. If men weren’t discriminated against we’d have a pill which we’d all love to take to prevent pregnancy, solving the problem. Instead we are relegated to having a surgical procedure that’s often irreversible to prevent pregnancy and still have satisfying sex. You women have nothing to complain about

  12. Madolyn Hayne says:

    During the 1960’s I had my 3 daughters. I wasn’t a big drinker not to an access, but I did drink during each pregnancy.
    Alcohol was never discuss by my OBGYN. In fact, the Dr. Suggested having a beer at bedtime to help in getting to sleep.
    It was a surprise to me that years later drinking was forbidden for every pregnant woman the minute they found out they were pregnant. And how society seems to be involved in policing them. Of course, in the 1960’s we didn’t know we were pregnant, until our Dr’s Exam. By that time we were a couple of months along and had been continuing life as usual, including drinking.

  13. Way off base………….RE: the title of the article. If that’s truly what the CDC said, …” they CAN’T drink,” then it is understandable why the author is defensive and goes on and on…………………..
    Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is real………….The bottom line is that a developing fetus is damaged neurologically by it’s mother’s consumption of alcohol. There is no such escape by “only drinking a little or, only a couple of times.” And, the recommendation to use birth control if one is consuming alcohol is because one does not always know one is pregnant until a period of time has gone by. If consumption occurred then, neuro- damage will be done. Believe me, the challenged life for both child and parents can be one of misery, stress and heart ache. And, it’s all preventable. So, how stupid, defensive, self centered and righteous does one want to be?

  14. The CDC also has a page on excess alcohol use and men’s health, which highlights the increased likelihood of men engaging in high risk sex and sexual assault. The women’s infographic shows eight glasses of alcohol–that’s drinking to get drunk. In light if the very real risks associated with alcohol, (not just limited to the fetus if you read the guidelines) and the unfortunately broad acceptance of drinking in American society, and considering it’s just one of many pieces of useful information given to and sought by women trying to have a baby–or trying not to get assaulted–planning not to get pregnant if you plan to drink yourself senseless is clearly good advice!

  15. Deborah Aloisi says:

    First of all their are very few safe birth control options for women over 35 and second pregnancy is the least of my worries given the assortment of STI’s. Women are believed to be liars unless there facts are verified by men so why stop with the work place or academics? Why not continue to control choices such as permanent sterilization and overt moralization of sexual decision making while men can do anything take a shower put on a suit an tie and be respected in the morning.

  16. This whole post is one the lengthiest, over-reaching, mis guided creations ever to troll the internet.

    Congratulations. You missed the point.

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