Put down your wine, ladies, you might be pregnant

Gabrielle Gentile

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set off a wave of controversy in February when it released a report recommending that sexually active women refrain from drinking alcohol if not on birth control.

The report estimates that 3.3 million (7.3 percent) women between the ages of 15 to 44 are at risk of endangering their developing baby, if they were to become pregnant, because they are drinking alcohol, are sexually active and not using birth control.

Time contributor Darlena Cunha understands the CDC’s attempt to caution women against Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but feels this recommendation is unwarranted; saying it’s offensive, shames women and ties their main value to having children.

Students like senior Emily Janosko are concerned the recommendation is a slippery slope with many steps. Steps that come in-between having a drink and having a child.

“It seems kind of ridiculous to deprive women of alcohol just because there is a possibility of having a kid,” Janosko said. “Women are supposed to just not drink ever because they might become pregnant. I don’t agree with that at all.”

Janosko is not alone in her opinion. Cunha said the CDC is talking down to women. She believes women have the right to privacy and should not have to forgo their right to bodily autonomy based on a nonexistent baby.

“Suddenly, it’s no longer a political question whether a mother’s right to her body outweighs the right of an unborn fetus inside of her,” Cunha said in a Time article. “Instead it is a medical guideline that a woman’s right to her body vanishes if there is a mere possibility that a fetus might reside there someday.”

Diane Webb, a nurse practitioner at Kent State’s Stark Women’s Center, thinks stating that all women should be on birth control or stop drinking alcohol is an oversimplification of the CDC recommendations.

“The real purpose of the recommendations is to create awareness of the risks of alcohol exposure to a fetus during pregnancy,” Webb said. “Their recommendations are appropriate to prevent the disease of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The whole tone of the report to me is more about educating and creating awareness of the potential harmful effects of alcohol in pregnancy. I don’t think it is stating women are only valuable if they have children or they absolutely must use birth control in order to consume alcohol. It was more a recommendation if deemed appropriate.”

Lela McKnight-Eily, an epidemiologist and Ph.D. in clinical psychology on the CDC’s Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention Team, confirmed Webb’s clarification in a statement to 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,” McKnight-Eily said in a Huffington Post article.  

This interpretation, however, begged the question from Refinery29 contributor Haley Macmillen, where does the man’s responsibility come into play? She points out that it takes two people to get pregnant.

The wave of controversy was ignited again by the accompanying infographic, which shows women who drink alcohol are more at risk for unintended pregnancy, injuries, violence and sexually transmitted diseases.  

Designer Chris Giganti created a infographic parody to address men in the same tone. He told Refinery29 the problem is the CDC is advising women to not drink alcohol because men can do bad things to them. Statistically, Giganti is correct.

A report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center states 91 percent of rape victims in the U.S. are female. Additionally, a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found the national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5 percent per rape and said rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency. Lastly, data from a 2007 study for the National Institute of Justice reported 89 percent of sexual assault victims reported drinking.

“Maybe it’s not the CDC’s job to focus on social issues over medical ones,” Giganti told Refinery29. “But it’s probably also not their job to take an infographic about the dangers of alcohol for pregnant women and turn it into a moral crusade against all those whiskey-chugging floozies getting themselves raped, picking up the herp and having to get drive-through abortions because they’re so irresponsible.”

Webb believes the CDC recommendation and infographic are not sexist, and all human beings should know the consequences of their actions.

“To me, drinking alcohol in pregnancy is like playing Russian Roulette,” Webb said. “Do you want to take a chance with what could be developing that day and drink alcohol? I don’t think educating women about high-risk behaviors and ways to avoid consequences is controlling, sexist or demeaning. I think that an educated woman is a powerful woman. We are not being sexist but empowering women to make mature decisions about their own health and potentially about the health of an unborn child.”

Despite the CDC’s clarification, and many health professionals reiterating Webb’s thoughts, the controversy has garnered attention ranging from national news publications to restaurant trade associations like The American Beverage Institute.

Sarah Longwell, managing director of the institute, thinks advising women to avoid alcohol simply because they are fertile is not a realistic solution. She believes even though women are capable of having children, they can also safely and responsibly consume alcohol. 

Business management senior Taylor Widuck agrees with Longwell and is unclear why the CDC is protecting a fetus that doesn’t exist.

“The whole thing sounds ignorant,” Widuck said. “I just don’t really think it makes sense. I understand the concept, but women should be allowed to drink. There is always going to be a chance of getting pregnant, we’re women. Are we just not supposed to do anything ever because we have the ability to get pregnant?”  

Gabrielle Gentile is a health reporter at The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected]