Drink Not, Lest Ye Be Judged

Posted on April 10, 2011 by

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A scandalous photo of actress Kate Hudson hit the internet last week. No, she wasn’t caught with a married costar or with a vial of cocaine. The pregnant Ms. Hudson was photographed having dinner in Argentina—while sipping a glass of red wine.

“Kate Hudson, What Are You Drinking?” demanded gossip site Popeater, who published the blurred paparazzi photos alongside this note:

While some believe that imbibing in moderation while pregnant is OK, many experts disagree.

A New York-based OB-GYN who has not treated Hudson says of her choice of beverage, “Right now, no one really knows what amount of alcohol is harmful for the fetus, so it’s recommended that you don’t drink at all during pregnancy.”

The doctor’s suggestion? Abstain. “We just don’t know enough.”

While we may not know “enough” (at least, according to one anonymous gynecologist), there’s a lot we do know. We know that a pregnant woman can cause serious damage to her unborn child by drinking heavily. We know that children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can have severe physical and mental disabilities.

But we also know that there is no evidence—none—that small amounts of alcohol have any effect on fetal development.  In fact, a recent British study concluded that children of women who drink lightly during pregnancy (1-2 drinks a week) are at no greater risk for developmental problems than children of women who drink nothing.

So why does the Surgeon General tell pregnant women to abstain completely from alcohol?

Ah, yes: the precautionary principle. If something isn’t proven to be absolutely safe, the United States government takes it upon itself to steer people away from it. That sounds all well and good—-better safe than sorry—until you realize that the government is promoting distorted hegemonic perceptions that aren’t founded in fact.

Remember the D.A.R.E program? Teachers would tell kids that smoking a joint would get them addicted to marijuana and more—it just takes one puff!—despite the dearth of evidence to back up their claims. By inflating the negative effects of drug use, D.A.R.E. officials managed to set back much-needed drug policy reform while simultaneously undercutting any real education the government could offer.

You might argue—as many do—that the Surgeon General’s Office has done well to err on the side of caution in their warnings. After all, they are just warnings. This isn’t the FDA keeping life-saving drugs off the market; this is a federal suggestion that women don’t consume any alcohol during pregnancy.

But, of course, government warnings influence the way people think. Eventually—at least for some people—they become de facto social rules, enforced by the threat of public scorn.

As the Kate Hudson photo made the blogosphere rounds last week, MSNBC.com’s “TODAY Moms” blog weighed in:

People tend to go a little crazy over the notion of pregnant women drinking, even in moderation. The idea of a pregnant woman being near alcohol is enough to set some people off. Witness the pregnant woman who was kicked out of a bar earlier this year — while drinking water.

That last sentence refers to 29-year-old woman Michelle Lee, who was kicked out of an Illinois bar in January after a bouncer noticed she was pregnant (even though, as noted, she was only drinking water.)  When asked about the incident, president of the National Organization for Women Terry O’Neill said:

We live in a country where people feel increasingly empowered to make decisions for pregnant women.

It’s all a little Handmaid’s Tale, isn’t it? Look at the wording of the Surgeon General’s 2005 advisory (which updated its 1981 “suggestion” that pregnant women limit their alcohol intake):

1. A pregnant woman should not drink alcohol during pregnancy.
2. A pregnant woman who has already consumed alcohol during her pregnancy should stop in order to minimize further risk.
3. A woman who is considering becoming pregnant should abstain from alcohol.
4. Recognizing that nearly half of all births in the United States are unplanned, women of child-bearing age should consult their physician and take steps to reduce the possibility of prenatal alcohol exposure.
5. Health professionals should inquire routinely about alcohol consumption by women of childbearing age, inform them of the risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and advise them not to drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy.

Not only is the Surgeon General’s Office telling women that they shouldn’t drink at all while pregnant, it’s also telling them that if there’s any chance at all they could get pregnant, they should consult their doctor about alcohol and take appropriate “steps.” What steps, I wonder? Is the Surgeon General suggesting that women keep their bodies pure to better serve as gestational vessels for the next generation? Or does it just seem like that because the Surgeon General’s Office is eerily good at making its press releases sound like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel?

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Posted in: Health Care