There’s really very little data on the affect of light drinking on a growing fetus. But you would never know that if you read the latest guidelines issued by the CDC, which tells women they shouldn’t ever drink unless they are taking birth control.
The reason for this new guidance? According to the CDC, it’s to cut down on the possibility of giving your child Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)—a condition defined by the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) as a “range of effects that can occur in an individual who is prenatally exposed to alcohol. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications.”
There’s no doubt that FAS is a terrible condition made even worse by the fact that it’s entirely preventable. But is the CDC helping anyone and decreasing the likelihood of FAS by issuing these puritanical guidelines or is the agency just scaring women unnecessarily?
Unfortunately, the latter seems far more likely. Women who are reading and taking these CDC warnings seriously are unlikely candidates for heavy drinking while pregnant, but many are likely to worry unnecessarily and become guilt-ridden for having a glass of wine.
The CDC should give women more complete information about the real risks associated with alcohol and pregnancy. After all, we do know this: the occasional glass of wine while pregnant does not cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. According to WebMd, FAS is caused if a pregnant woman “drink[s] frequently (four or five alcoholic beverages or more per day).” I think most women can understand that downing a bottle of wine in one sitting is undeniably bad for a growing baby, without the blanket prohibition on all alcohol intake.
The CDC isn’t treating women like adults by hiding these facts and by suggesting that women must abstain entirely from alcohol while pregnant (and now, according to the CDC, they should abstain after getting their first menstrual cycle because one can conceive unknowingly at anytime!). Both the agency and NOFAS tell women “no amount of alcohol during pregnancy has been proven safe.” That might be true. But failing to prove something is safe isn’t proof that it’s unsafe.
NOFAS hasn’t offered an official position on the CDC guidance but the organization’s President Tom Donaldson told me he understands how the message has gotten muddled. While NOFAS officially echoes the CDC’s policy on alcohol and pregnancy, Donaldson agrees that the CDC guidance might confuse women or cause anxiety in pregnant woman—a condition also known to be harmful.
Emily Oster, an economist at the University of Chicago, researched light drinking during pregnancy for her in her book Expecting Better. Examining two of the leading studies on pregnancy and alcohol consumption, Oster’s findings surprised many. She wrote about the findings in Slate, saying:
I summarize two studies in detail in my book: one looking at alcohol consumption by pregnant women and behavior problems for the resulting children up to age 14 and one looking at alcohol in pregnancy and test performance at age 14. Both show no difference between the children of women who abstain and those who drink up to a drink a day. I summarize two others in less detail: one looking at IQ scores at age 8 and a more recent one looking at IQ scores at age 5. These also demonstrate no impact of light drinking on test scores.
Based on this analysis, Oster concluded that an occasional glass of wine while pregnant seems reasonable. For this, many called Oster harmful and irresponsible. Yet, what’s far more irresponsible and harmful is keeping this important information away from pregnant women, or women hoping to become pregnant. Women deserve to know the rather banal truth—that there’s simply no evidence that the occasional glass of wine is harmful to growing babies (Oster was careful to point out that women should drink less during the first trimester because of risk of miscarriage). Of course, if you drink the whole bottle, that’s a problem.
These new recommendations from the CDC show a worrying trend—a growing tendency in federal agencies to issue policies based on the precautionary principal, the idea that something should be considered unsafe unless it can be proven to be completely safe. Rather it should be the other way around – government agencies should only be issuing regulations or warnings against behaviors and products that are harmful and otherwise give people freedom to live as they see fit. This regulatory scheme appeals to mothers in particular because it sounds an awful lot like advice given to mothers all the time: It’s better to be safe than sorry. This concept resonates with pregnant women in particular because of the added responsibility that comes with pregnancy.
The CDC receives billions of federal tax dollars each year to research all that ails us. The agency shouldn’t be the source of one of those ailments—adding stress to the lives of pregnant women about fabled risks of an occasional glass of wine.