Do pregnant women need to abstain completely from drinking?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 12 2010 7:12 AM

Drinking While Pregnant

Do women really need to abstain completely?

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Does that make better-safe-than-sorry sensible or paternalistic? The tension has played out in the evolving guidelines of the U.K. Department of Health. Not too long ago, the department officially advised women that they could drink up to two units of alcohol once or twice a week. When the government changed its policy in 2007, suggesting pregnant women abstain entirely —but admitting the move wasn't in response to new scientific evidence—the move elicited strong response. In the pages of the Times, women called it "filthily patronising."

It's true that the notion of pregnant women drinking has come to be seen as a kind of pervasive moral threat that must be policed by the rest of the culture. We "don't want to say that one drink a week is OK, because then people naturally say, 'Oh, if one's all right, then three can't be bad,' " Tom Donaldson, the president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, told ABC News in 2006. On a comments board discussing a recent New York Post story about pregnant women choosing to drink small amounts of alcohol, one commenter writes, "I hope you enjoy your pregnancy while drinking alcoholic beverages. I also hope you remember what you have done to your child when he/she is born and has fetal alcohol syndrome, is unable to grow, unable to learn to read or do math, is delayed, etc."

Social historians have noted the incongruity of an alcohol warning label that puts the risk of birth defects from pregnant drinking before the statistically greater risk from drinking and driving. "It is drinking by men that poses the greatest threats to personal and public health and the social order," writes Princeton sociology and public affairs professor Elizabeth Mitchell Armstrong in her 2003 book Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility. Men are more likely to abuse alcohol, and "more likely to drive after drinking and to be involved in fatal crashes."

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But it is women's drinking we are concerned about, perhaps inevitably given our culture's view toward pregnancy. Armstrong told me that after she published her book, she heard all sorts of stories—like one about the liquor store clerk who refused to sell a pregnant woman a pricey bottle of Scotch, which she wanted for her husband's birthday. It's hard to escape the conclusion that as a society we care at least as much about censuring women as we do about protecting their babies. After all, as Rutgers University history professor Janet Golden points out, a culture that cares about its most vulnerable would make it easier for alcoholics – those least likely to be able to heed a warning label—to get treatment during pregnancy, without the threat of losing older children to foster care.

I'm ambivalent about the way we push alcohol abstinence during this period in women's lives. I see the benefit of a clear, concise message in the face of uncertainty. I'm also persuaded that consuming a single drink on one or two occasions belongs well below the risk of driving—sober—in my car. But it's the drink that's guaranteed to bring on the looks of disapproval.

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