Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental conditions affecting infants with symptoms including growth deficits, learning disabilities, hyperactive behavior, distinctive facial features, vision or hearing problems, cardiac complications, and a slew of potential cognitive defects. Prenatal exposure to alcohol, through maternal consumption of beverages, is the cause of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Furthermore, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders have been considered the most prevalent of any developmental disability and birth defect in the Western world. So why, and more importantly, how, could the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) incite such outrage with its campaign to spread awareness about the preventable measures one can take?
Instead of relaying information regarding risks during pregnancy, the CDC failed not only to accurately convey scientific knowledge, but wrongly assumed what was best for women, not pregnant women, but all women. The CDC starts off their colorful campaign pamphlet by outlining risks first for women who are pregnant, including miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and sudden infant death syndrome. This seems appropriate enough information to convey, given that the medical community does have a relatively strong case for the numerous potential dangers that alcohol intake may pose to a developing fetus. But here’s where the real issue starts.
The CDC then lists the risks that “any woman” would need to consider if they are “drinking too much” such as “injuries/violence, heart diseases, cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, fertility problems, [and] unintended pregnancy.” This is an unbelievably bold claim to make. I would love to see how “drinking too much” can cause either STDs or unintended pregnancies. That’s right, they can’t. At least, not until making some blatantly sexist assumptions.
These sorts of “risks” necessarily imply that when a woman is to drink, she somehow automatically is at a significant risk of, presumably, having unprotected sex. This is an incredible supposition without any credible reason for believing it. This seems to be playing off of some slippery slope argument that considers a socially normal experience and behavior (whether it be drinking alcohol or dressing “inappropriately,” as the argument goes) as the cause of the harm that is then brought upon the woman. This then somewhat implies that if a woman is made aware of this soon enough, it is up to her to break the cycle, claim responsibility, and then know better than to partake in anything that may be problematic. But this, of course, is leaving out something important to the equation.
These kinds of accounts fail to paint a complete picture of the situation at hand, implying instead that women drinking can lead to “dangerous sex.” Sure, it can, but it doesn’t necessarily have to, and more importantly, this point seems arbitrarily targeted towards shaming women for drinking and further dictating how women should use their bodies. Drinking can lead to pregnancy and/or STDs, just as drinking can lead to vehicular accidents. But, somehow, the dangers associated with drinking are only relevant to women and, more importantly, only have to do with sex. How surprising.
So what does the CDC consider “drinking too much” for women? Having more than 1 drink on average per night. Furthermore, the CDC is recommending that doctors and health professionals “assess a woman’s drinking” and that they “recommend birth control if a woman is having sex, not planning to get pregnant, and is drinking alcohol.” This kind of paternal decree is poorly hidden. Instead, it resembles the kind of condescending “advice” that women are all too familiar receiving, whether it is telling them what to eat, how to dress, when to talk, how to behave, how to reproduce, how to and how not to use their bodies, etc.
In a time when Planned Parenthood seems to perpetually face threats of federal defunding, when women still are not making the same amount of money for the same work, and they still must confront many other discriminatory federal policies, it is of the utmost importance that individuals recognize and acknowledge the persistent attacks on women and women’s rights.
Instead of presenting current neurodevelopmental findings and allowing women to deliberate on their own, the CDC has chosen to make lifestyle decisions on behalf of all women. We, as a society, assume we know what is best for certain groups of people, instead of having the shred of humility to admit that, just maybe, individuals ought to be able to make their own choices without external interferences, particularly from institutions of power. Writer Rebecca Ruiz summarized the CDC’s publication best: “Its underlying message was unmistakable: Women should consider themselves first a vessel for human life and make decisions about their health and behavior based on that possibility.”