Last week, the CDC released a statement that women should not consume alcohol during their fertile years unless they are using birth control. This is the latest and most extreme in a series of directives issued by medical authorities to prevent children from being exposed to potentially dangerous substances while in the womb.
Many Catholic writers have pointed out the seeming contradictions between treating an unborn child as disposable when it comes to abortion, yet as a precious being who deserves the most exacting possible protection if a woman intends to give birth. This new directive, by drawing a direct connection between alcohol guidelines and birth control use, reveals that there is no contradiction at all. The micromanagement of pregnant bodies, and now of fertile women’s bodies, is actually a logical extension of the reasoning behind abortion and aggressive family planning.
At the heart of the planned parenthood mentality, there is a belief that every child has a right to be born into the most ideal possible circumstances. The dignity of human life is seen to be dependent on its “quality” as measured by a variety of economic, physical and psychosocial factors. The perception is that the most worthwhile human life is one in which a neurotypical, able-bodied child is loved and doted upon by economically privileged parents. Deviation from this ideal reduces the value of a life and increases the likelihood that abortion will be a “compassionate” necessity in order to prevent a “life of suffering.”
This means that when a woman actually intends to bring a pregnancy to completion, it is morally obligatory that she does everything possible to secure those goods that make life worth living in the first place. If a woman makes the decision to be fertile, then she must be warned against any behavior that might increase the likelihood of a defective infant being born.
In practice, this means women are subjected to a series of often arbitrary strictures. The CDC’s media release provides a perfect example of the kind of fear-mongering that gets used to inflate trivial risks. “More than three million U.S. women at risk for alcohol-exposed pregnancy” the headline declares. It sounds alarming: that’s an awful lot of women.
But what are they at risk of? An “alcohol-exposed pregnancy.” Although the article tries to create the impression that there is a strong correlation between an “alcohol-exposed pregnancy” and serious developmental problems, the fact is the only thing most of these women are at risk of is drinking some alcohol in early pregnancy. Many of these women will not got pregnant. Most of those who do will have developmentally normal babies.
In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that women who drink moderately are at risk of having babies with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) at all. The line that is continuously used in medical literature condemning even trivial use of alcohol in pregnancy is that there is “no known safe amount.” This same argument is used to discourage pregnant women from taking a wide variety of common over-the-counter medications.
In no other area of life do we use this kind of reasoning. Generally, we presume that innocent behaviors are safe unless there is reason to believe otherwise. In the case of moderate drinking, the evidence that does exist points toward the conclusion that if there are any risks, they are minimal. Rates of FAS are not higher in countries where moderate social drinking is normal during pregnancy. Nor have studies substantiated the idea that the children of teetotalers are better behaved or perform better on IQ tests than children of moderate drinkers.
Economist Emily Oster points out that studies that do show significant differences tend to have severe methodological flaws, often failing to control for other factors that might explain the difference — such as socioeconomic status or education. One, for example, found significantly more behavioral problems in children of women who reported moderate drinking during pregnancy vs. those who reported no drinking, however the conclusion failed to take into account that 45 percent of the women who reported drinking also reported using cocaine. Such discrepancies should be obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of statistical analysis, yet this is the kind of data that gets dredged up to support the notion that even occasional use of alcohol places an unborn — or even unconceived — child at risk.
We might ask, “Why is this a problem?” After all, if we think unborn life is precious, surely taking measures to protect it, even if they’re based on questionable science, is a good thing, right?
The problem is that this makes it needlessly onerous for a woman to be pregnant. It’s not really a big deal to give up alcohol, sushi, deli meat and half a dozen other minor pleasures for nine months once, maybe twice in a lifetime, just in case. It’s a much bigger deal for a woman who intends to exercise her fertility through a significant percentage of her fertile years, especially when these strictures are imposed not only on pregnant women but also on women who are breastfeeding and now even those who are merely open to life.
For more reaction to the CDC statement, see http://aleteia.org/blogs/simchafisher/trust-women-not-the-cdc/.
Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. She blogs at Catholic Authenticity.