In defense of the CDC

Last week, the CDC published a report on alcohol-exposed pregnancies. Also posted were some handy infographics outlining the many and varied risks of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) to help make the science more relatable and easier to read. The CDC voiced reasonable concerns about FASDs, spelled out the very real consequences they bear on individual children and the country, and posed thoughtful recommendations to prevent them. Along with these facts, they also took the opportunity to outline a few health risks driven by excessive drinking for all females, not just pregnant ones.

God help the CDC for talking about the female body. They were immediately slammed for their “unnecessarily restrictive” (Slate) outlook on alcohol consumption throughout pregnancy. Many reported that the CDC was actively advising any sexually active, fertile women to abstain from alcohol if they were not on birth control or using any form of contraception (JezebelElle, BuzzFeed). The notion that even the women who were not trying to get pregnant were at risk seemed to be unacceptable (no matter that approximately half the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned).

Wait. Stop for a second before taking to social media. Let’s go inch by inch. The basis of the report was to study alcohol-exposed pregnancies. Beyond the stork, we know that the recipe for a pregnancy requires a fertile female, a fertile male, and unprotected sex. If you’ve made it past 6th grade health class, you also know that the fetus grows inside the female body. Therefore, we are limiting our discussion to the female body. Remember that part about the report studying alcohol-exposed pregnancies? The CDC rationally and responsibly included all fertile women who drink in the study, because science doesn’t give a shit if you have feelings. If you can get pregnant and you drink, you are at risk.

Most of the responses were defensive, at best. Ruth Graham for Slate tried to tangle the CDC in its own words, referencing a 2012 report stating that “older and more educated women were significantly likelier to drink during pregnancy than younger, less-educated women are.” Oh, was that Dr. Graham? Right, didn’t think so. Unfortunately, this just proves that no matter how “smart” you are, you are still wrong.

Other pieces rang with righteous outrage and incredulity, as the internet is so good at doing. Most of this anger was generated around the CDC’s choice to include some additional information outlining the potential risks of excessive drinking for any woman, pregnant or not. Within the context of the larger discussion and, moreover, the reevaluation of our national outlook on drinking during pregnancy, I thought it compelling, if not central, material to include. It certainly wasn’t the most important information on the graphic, yet it dominated the conversations on the topic.

I’m disappointed that so many women took the “it’s my body and I’ll do with it what I want” bait. Actually, if you’re bringing your pregnancy to term, it’s not just going to be your body. Apparently it’s not even just your problem, as it cost the United States $5.5 billion (2010) on issues related to drinking while pregnant.

I also noticed many of the women writing about this over the past few days have used their own experience as testimony for how normal drinking while pregnant is, attempting to prove just how wrong the CDC is on this issue. How I Met Your Mother ran a whole episode (The Stinson Missile Crisis) on the acceptance of consuming processed foods and alcohol during pregnancy. So everyone thought it was a certain way for a while. It even worked out for the majority of the women who felt the most threatened.

All of this can be true, and yet CDC can publish new information that pushes up against the previously accepted norm. It’s hard to believe that among so many well-educated, accomplished women, most of them are so outraged by being told by an accepted authority armed with hard facts, to not necessarily even change their own behaviors, but to try to change their minds.

 

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