An Unrealistic Warning From the CDC to Women: Don't Drink Unless You're Using Birth Control


In a recommendation aimed at the reasonable and laudable purpose of decreasing the incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome, the CDC has significantly overshot their mark by recommending that women who are (1) of childbearing age and (2) not on birth control stop drinking.

Published on Tuesday, the CDC release seems to target women who are attempting to get pregnant, but then speaks more broadly, noting:

An estimated 3.3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, according to the latest CDC Vital Signs report released today. The report also found that 3 in 4 women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.

That latter fact is interesting, and it’s under-discussed. It seems realistic to me that a woman who’s just gotten her IUD out or thrown her pills away in the interest of “starting to try” to get pregnant wouldn’t necessarily also stop drinking altogether, right away, as a precaution; it seems sensible to recommend that women in this category—women who abruptly stop using birth control in the interest of getting pregnant—should consider a cease-and-desist on their dinner wine.

But to stop drinking just because you are fertile? The CDC release points out the frequency of unplanned pregnancies, and quotes 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?”

The CDC isn’t alone in this recommendation: the Mayo Clinic, for one, also recommends that any sexually active woman not on birth control refrain from drinking. But “the risk is real, why take the chance” has such a historical stranglehold even on women who are already pregnant, whose risk level is not real but immediate; to extend this idea to women who might become pregnant just because they are alive and unmedicated—or to phrase the recommendation with a basic disregard for the facts of how women live—suggests the same old idea that all women are either future, current, past or broken incubators, and that is their body’s primary use.

Again: “Overall, 3.3 million US women (7.3 percent of women ages 15–44 who were having sex, who were non-pregnant and non-sterile) were at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol if they were to become pregnant.” Well, that’s the game for all of us, probably. You heard them: fuck your bodily reactions, your desires, your circumstances; forget that the real problem is abortion access and the fact that birth control occasionally fails. Women, your body is a ticking time bomb in which the bomb is a fetus, so get on birth control or stop drinking—that’s the way it’s going to be!

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via ABC

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