When there is a health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are often looked to as a voice of reason. In light of the movement attempting to link autism to vaccines, the centers heavily emphasized the importance of vaccinations on herd immunity. This past week, they came out with a recommendation that women who are sexually active, but not on birth control, should not drink alcohol because any amount of alcohol could be potentially harmful. The CDC reasoned, “Why take the risk?”
The CDC’s recommendations are fueling hysteria about the effects of light drinking for pregnant women.
According to Aaron Carroll, a pediatric physician, the specific points articulated make sense on the surface: Women may not know they are pregnant, and if drinking while not on birth control, there is a chance they may be pregnant, in turn causing their baby to develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. However, he also said, “If we want to reduce (FASDs), and get the most bang for our buck, it’s worth starting with the too-many women who binge drink while they’re pregnant.”
Rather than focusing on moderate drinkers who may slip and have a drink before they realize they are pregnant, the CDC should focus on the much larger problem of binge drinking, which is unlikely to be remedied by their recommendation.
The CDC’s argument oversteps, because rather than deal with a pre-existing and considerable problem, it instead creates one. By creating a harsh and nigh-impossible-to-meet standard, they decrease the likelihood of people who will actually follow their advice.
Of course it is possible for a woman to unknowingly drink while pregnant, but studies about the effects of light drinking on unborn children are mixed as to what the exact repercussions are.
According to Melinda Wenner Moyer’s article “To Drink or not To Drink?” in Scientific American, these experiments are hard to conduct because they cannot have random assignment to groups, so they must use women who choose to drink or abstain from alcohol. The women who choose to drink might engage in other behaviors that have a negative effect on their child. It has not been conclusively shown that light drinking presents major issues in terms of fetal development.
These standards deflect focus from a more substantive problem and only increase scrutiny on pregnant women, who already have many of their choices critiqued in the media: to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, to swaddle or not to swaddle, to name one’s children freely without fear of mockery.
While the information used to back up the recommendations is sound, it rings draconian and fails to address the actual and more well-defined problem, which is binge drinking while pregnant. According to The New York Times, the CDC itself has admitted the released guidelines are not as clear as they had intended them to be.
The CDC’s job is to issue recommendations that they obviously has no power to enforce. Because of this, as well as the severely limiting nature of their recommendation, it will likely only affect those who are already health-conscious. Instead of offering a nuanced solution, the CDC has managed only to induce paranoia by setting an impossible standard.
Instead of tackling FASDs with guidelines that will be ignored by those who induce the very problem the CDC wants to rectify, the government must be more pragmatic and address this from a policy standpoint: What programs can be put into place in order to decrease binge drinking among pregnant women? What public service announcements would serve to educate women about the pain induced by FASDs?
The pre-existing guidelines only come off as hollow when they are dubious at best and unattainable at worst.
Nicole Dan is a UF political science sophomore. Her column appears on Mondays.