The Cable

CDC to Women: Go on Birth Control or Quit Drinking

Among the various medical dictates in common circulation, teetotalism isn’t new. But a new report by the CDC takes previous cautionings further.

TO GO WITH STORY: Vietnam-health-social-alcohol,FEATURE by Cat Barton
This picture taken on December 13, 2014 shows youngsters cheering up while drinking beer at a local open-air beer bar in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. A scantily-clad DJ gyrates to ear-splitting music as visibly drunk punters order beer towers: welcome to the Hangover, one of a new crop of beer clubs raising concerns about Vietnam's drinking culture.     AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM        (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH STORY: Vietnam-health-social-alcohol,FEATURE by Cat Barton This picture taken on December 13, 2014 shows youngsters cheering up while drinking beer at a local open-air beer bar in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. A scantily-clad DJ gyrates to ear-splitting music as visibly drunk punters order beer towers: welcome to the Hangover, one of a new crop of beer clubs raising concerns about Vietnam's drinking culture. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

New guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection say that sexually active women who aren’t using birth control shouldn’t drink — ever.

Among the various medical dictates in common circulation, teetotalism isn’t new. Except for in moderate measures that admittedly might elude many drinkers, alcohol’s negative health impacts are multifarious, pernicious, and well-described.

A new report by the CDC takes previous cautionings further. Women between the ages of 15 and 44 who drink but don’t use birth control are at risk of exposing fetuses to alcohol, and for that reason shouldn’t drink at all. Those findings and the attendant recommendation apply to around 3.3 million women in the United States.

Alongside this hardline finger-waggery, the report also found that “3 in 4 women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.”

For those reasons, the CDC recommends that sexually active women choose: Go on birth control or don’t drink.

There’s no definitive statistic on the prevalence of fetal alcohol problems around the world. The World Health Organization estimates 94 percent of severe congenital anomalies in babies happen in in low- and middle-income countries, where women are especially likely to be malnourished, exposed to disease, or drink alcohol during pregnancy.

The question of whether very moderate levels of drinking can harm unborn babies is by no means resolved. Regardless, the CDC has been known to recommend better-safe-than-sorry approaches, which can come across as blunderbuss solutions to needlework problems, blowing nuance aside.

“Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant,” Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters. “About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking.”

“The risk is real,” she continued. “Why take the chance?”

Because drinking is fun, maybe? Because women can make their own risk assessments? Because alcohol is part of people’s social and family lives — a part they enjoy?

“We don’t tell pregnant women not to drive cars, even though we are much more certain that there’s a nonzero risk to their fetuses from each car ride than from each drink,” Rebecca Kukla, a professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and author of Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies, told Voactiv. “The ideal of zero risk is both impossible to meet and completely paralyzing to try to meet.”

Photo credit: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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