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:

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Photo via Flickr user AwayWeGo210 licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Elizabeth 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.