Earlier this month the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a new infographic on alcohol consumption with some controversial recommendations for women of childbearing age. In short, if a woman is not on birth control, the CDC recommends that she avoid alcohol altogether because she might become pregnant.
My first take on the report was that this was simply another example of how we treat young women as if they are merely wombs in waiting. In her response to the recommendations Rebecca Ruiz wrote this for Mashable.com:
While the original recommendation may have been intended to ensure safe pregnancies and healthy children, its underlying message was unmistakable: Women should consider themselves first a vessel for human life and make decisions about their health and behavior based on that possibility.
Despite severe backlash CDC officials stand by their assertion that the primary goal of this infographic is to alert the public about the dangers of alcohol consumption, particularly for pregnant women. In an interview with the New York Times CDC deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat said, “We’re really all about empowering women to make good choices and to give them the best information we can so they can decide what they want to do themselves.”
When my husband and I made the decision to have a child, I immediately immersed myself in research. I read Taking Charge of Your Fertility and began tracking my basal temperature. I started taking folic acid and yes, I did cut back on my alcohol consumption. The timing of that decision happened to coincide with attending a bachelorette party. As I nursed my club soda while the rest of our group had cocktails, I told myself that it was a small sacrifice to make. The thing is, I was trying to get pregnant. That decision about my future had shifted the way I thought about my day to day life. I was preparing for the real possibility that everything was about to radically change, so making some minor adjustments ahead of time felt small in comparison.
But the CDC’s recommendations are not intended only for women who are trying to conceive. They apply to any woman of childbearing age who has the possibility of becoming pregnant. The problem isn’t that they encourage women to be careful about how much alcohol they are consuming. The problem is that it reinforces the idea that a woman’s decisions and behaviors should be focused on a potential pregnancy, whether or not she wants one.
The fact that this is being promoted by a government agency is particularly troublesome in an age when the policing of pregnant women’s bodies is becoming more and more stringent. In 2014 Tennessee passed a law that allows the state to criminally charge women who give birth to babies who show signs of drug withdrawal. While this is the most extreme law on the books, other states have similar legislation that considers prenatal drug exposure a form of child abuse. What would stop a state from passing a law that would prosecute a woman for consuming alcohol during her pregnancy?
I’ve grown increasingly fed up with this emphasis on an individual woman’s personal responsibility and decision-making without an equally serious focus on the conditions in which she lives her life. Reproductive justice activists have been saying this for decades. Loretta Ross, co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, writes about the connection in her article “Understanding Reproductive Justice”:
We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access.
As a person of faith committed to justice, I am compelled to take seriously what might appear on the surface to be innocuous and even ridiculous guidelines from the CDC and examine how they contribute to a larger, more dangerous narrative about women’s bodies. I fully support the CDC’s stated goals to reduce fetal alcohol syndrome and to ensure that every pregnancy is healthy. But we shouldn’t do so at the expense of women’s dignity and full humanity.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and educator who inspires intentionalcommunities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Find her on Twitter at @ktzeh or on her website www.kateyzeh.com.