In 2016, the UK Chief Medical Officer with endorsement from the Royal College of Midwives updated advice on drinking alcohol during pregnancy, stating:
“I want pregnant women to be very clear that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution. Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol before becoming aware of the pregnancy, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant.”
This month, the Centre for Pregnancy Culture Studies (CPCS) and others have been getting a lot of press for the claim that women are being unnecessarily frightened by this most recent advice and may be terminating pregnancies because of it (see post below for facts on this). They say that women who choose to drink at low levels during pregnancy are being stigmatized when the facts don’t support the guidelines. Further, they claim “the exclusion of women from an ordinary activity on the basis of ‘precaution’ can more properly be called sexist than benign.” (The Guardian, May 17, 2017)
That they see alcohol as a normal activity that women should have a right to, does a disservice to both feminism and to alcohol education. There is definitely here a reluctance to examine alcohol as a substance that has the potential to negatively affect health in all situations, and is a teratogen in the context of pregnancy. More, rather than less, discussion of alcohol on men’s and women’s health, and not only in relation to preconception and pregnancy would be welcome. Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines could inspire more public consideration of what we know and don’t know about alcohol.
CPCS’s comments were in tandem with a larger Policing Pregnancy conference held last week. And on points of pregnancy policing, we agree. Facts show that policing pregnancy increases stigma and pushes women to the margins so that they don’t get the help they want . Women should not be policed for their actions in pregnancy, rather they should have access to information and conversations that can support their decisions.
Preconception and prenatal health care with a caring and knowledgeable health care provider is critical to helping women have the best health and pregnancy possible. How many women have the kind of discussion of alcohol and the care they deserve?
As one opinion writer noted in response to the coverage, the tinkering with alcohol guidelines for pregnant women is not the harm here – it is the lack of services and care that pregnant women receive. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/20/i-can-cope-with-drinking-advice-but-not-bad-care
For more information, see these earlier posts:
- Poole, N. and B. Isaac, Apprehensions: Barriers to Treatment for Substance-Using Mothers. 2001, British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health: Vancouver, BC.