CDC condescends in alcohol-exposed pregnancy report

The CDC chastised women who drink alcohol and are sexually active in its latest release about the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome.

By: Kaye Burnet | News Editor 

The CDC chastised women who drink alcohol and are sexually active in its latest release about the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The CDC chastised women who drink alcohol and are sexually active in its latest release about the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome.

The Center for Disease Control is guilty of poor word choice with just a dash of sexism.

A Feb. 2 report issued by the CDC has stirred quite a controversy over the use of alcohol by women and ways to reduce fetal alcohol syndrome. The report recommended that sexually active women who are not using birth control avoid consuming any alcohol. More than 3 million women, the CDC estimated, are at risk of “exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy.”

This did not sit well with people such as Washington Post opinions contributor Alexandra Petri, who said the report treated women as “Potential People Containers” instead of human beings.

“No alcohol for you, young women!” Petri satirized. “The most important fact about you is not that you are people but that you might potentially contain people one day.”

While Petri has a good point, the CDC’s information is still correct. It’s a fact of life that women carry the entire burden of childbearing and potential-childbearing. An unfortunate fact, some might say, but still a fact. This means using some form of birth control if you are a sexually active woman who does not wish to get pregnant. If you do want to get pregnant, then it is safer for your future baby if you choose not to drink.

That was the entirety of the CDC’s message. No one wants babies to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, which is characterized by heart, kidney, liver and brain damage. Of course, it takes two to tango, and a woman’s egg is not going to fertilize itself. The CDC report failed to place any of the birth control burden on men, who should always use condoms if they are sexually active but do not wish to become fathers.

The frustrating part of the report is its wording, which sounds paternalistic. The last thing today’s women want to hear is some authority telling them what to do with their bodies. We’ve had thousands of years of that nonsense. Enough is enough. The CDC could have communicated its recommendations without ordering women to stop drinking.

“Drinking while sexually active and not on birth control increases your risk of becoming pregnant and exposing your baby to fetal alcohol syndrome” is a perfectly acceptable alternative to “Sexually active women who stop using birth control should stop drinking alcohol.”

Unfortunately, the sexism gets worse later in the report, with the introduction of a not-so-helpful infographic showing the many risks associated with being a woman and “drinking too much.” According to the graphic, consuming “too much” alcohol increases a woman’s risk of being a victim of violence, getting a sexually transmitted disease and becoming unintentionally pregnant.

To me, this has women-shaming and victim-blaming overtones, as if somehow it is a woman’s fault if she gets drunk and a man assaults her. I’m fine with the CDC recommending that women not drink too much alcohol if there’s a real chance they might be pregnant. However, as a respected health organization, the CDC must stop supporting a culture that holds women responsible for crimes committed against them while under the influence of alcohol.

Men are responsible for preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies to the same extent that women are, yet there are few colorful infographics telling men that drinking too much can increase their chances of getting a woman knocked up.

Insulting infographics aside, the CDC has a valid point — no one wants ill children. Women who are trying to get pregnant should consider avoiding alcohol, thereby preventing fetal alcohol syndrome. Next time, the Center must find a way to convey its message in a less condescending way.