This past week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new recommendations regarding drinking and pregnancy, in which they urged both pregnant women and women who could be pregnant to abstain from alcohol. Of course, any woman who is sexually active and not using birth control falls in to the "could be pregnant" category—so they basically told millions of women to give up booze for no reason other than a hypothetical baby.
As you can imagine, the internet went bananas.
The Atlantic called the CDC guidelines "bonkers." TIME said the warning "shamed and discriminated against women." The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri blasted the agency as "incredibly condescending." In scathing prose, Petri mocked, "No alcohol for you, young women! The most important fact about you is not that you are people but that you might potentially contain people one day."
The story became a trending topic on Facebook, and Twitter had a field day.
For a day or so, it seemed the women and media of the United States were one tweet away from grabbing their pitchforks and torches and marching on the CDC's headquarters in Atlanta, demanding blood.
My reaction to the CDC's guidelines was a bit more nuanced. Sure, their approach was atrocious, but the warning was real. Women who are sexually active and do not use birth control are indeed at risk of getting pregnant—half of pregnancies in this country are unplanned—ergo, if these women drink, they face a risk that their babies will be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Not to mention, the CDC found that 75% of women who are actively trying to get pregnant continue to drink alcohol, and 1 in 10 women say they drink during their pregnancy. (Perhaps the conflicting evidence about drinking and pregnancy that has been presented over the years has contributed to these trends.)
And so, feeling generous of spirit and willing to give the agency the benefit of the doubt, I reached out to the CDC on Wednesday to learn more about what the hell they were thinking. Were they taking an extreme tact in an attempt to banish the notion that it's okay to drink during pregnancy once and for all—an "any publicity is good publicity" approach? Were they baffled by the backlash? Would they perhaps like to clarify their message?
Turns out they. Would. Not.
In an email on Friday, a spokesperson told me the following:
CDC is aware that there has been great interest in the latest Vital Signs report on alcohol exposed pregnancies. The goal of the publication and our recommendations is to offer women and their partners the necessary facts to make informed decisions based on their personal circumstances.
Translation: We present the facts, and if they don't listen, that's on them. He continued:
We know that 3 out of 4 women who report that they want to get pregnant as soon as possible continue to drink alcohol and that drinking alcohol during any stage of pregnancy can have many risks for women and their babies including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) which are 100% preventable.
Translation: We keep warning people, but they keep drinking ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And finally:
There is no known safe amount, no safe time, and no safe type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. We want healthcare providers to screen every patient for alcohol use and recommend counseling, if appropriate.
Translation: For the love of God, stop drinking.
If you were holding your breath waiting for an apology, don't bother, because the CDC is doubling down.
It's worth noting that fetal alcohol spectrum disorders affect roughly 1 in 20 school children in this country, which is probably why the CDC is trying to do something about it—albeit, in a patronizing way. It should also be noted the United States is not the only country issuing these stern warnings. In January, the United Kingdom's Department of Health changed its drinking guidelines for pregnant women from 1 or 2 drinks a week to absolutely no drinks at all. As the department explains on its website:
The guidelines for pregnant women have also been updated to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy. The previous advice for pregnant women to limit themselves to no more than 1 to 2 units of alcohol once or twice per week has been removed to provide greater clarity as a precaution.
Denmark, too, another country once cited as allowing pregnant women to drink in moderation, now advises:
If you are pregnant, you should not drink alcohol. If you are planning a pregnancy, you should avoid alcohol to be on the safe side.
And according to the International Center for Alcohol Policies, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and other countries also recommend complete abstinence.
Of course, none of these countries have gone all, "I'm your parent, do what I say!!!" and explicitly targeted women who may, theoretically, accidentally get pregnant and told them to totally stop drinking because of their potential future fetus.
That's only something we do in America.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.