I wanted to write a post in response to the CDC’s recent recommendation that all women of childbearing age should refrain from drinking to reduce the potential of fetal alcohol syndrome and other complications.
If you want to read a really passionate response to the CDC’s recommendations check out this post from the blog Birth Anarchy: Women urge CDC to cease recommendations until they drunk-cry and apologize.
To summarize the report:
“A woman was considered to be at risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy if she was not sterile, her partner was not known to be sterile, and she had vaginal sex with a male, drank any alcohol, and did not use birth control in the past month” (CDC- Alcohol and Pregnancy, 2016)
Anne Schuchat of the CDC explains that because over half of pregnancies are unplanned in the US, “The risk is real. Why take the chance?” (CDC- Alcohol and Pregnancy, 2016). As Valeii of Birth Anarchy points out, the language being used here is that of the “responsibility” of women not to drink for fear of having unhealthy babies.
I think that the CDC’s report echoes what Irigary explains in her book, The Sex Which is Not One (1977). According to Iragary, women are seen as the “guardians of maternal substance” and if a woman enjoys herself sexually then her values depreciates. As a commodity, she is worth less because she is spoiled (1977, pp.37). In the case of the CDC’s recommendations, control over a woman’s sexual pleasure is expanded to her social pleasure of being able to drink as men do.
I agree that cases of Fetal alcohol syndrome must be addressed and prevented, but if women are shamed for drinking when they are not pregnant than their bodies become conceptualized as baby making machines, and their behaviour is further policed in the name of reproduction.
The CDC mentions the needs to always use contraception. However, women do not all have equal, safe and affordable access to contraceptive methods. In America and in many other countries, women struggle to attain contraceptives, not just for financial reasons but due to other social pressures. The CDC’s recommendations are a direct attack on women’s autonomy, not as baby machines, but as adult human beings.
To me, this sounds like the same logic behind abstinence-only sexual education. Telling women that they cannot drink is the same as telling young people that they cannot have sex until they are married. Not only does this logic not work (in the US the areas of highest teen pregnancy teach abstinence education), it tells us that women cannot make decisions for themselves, and they are not capable of protecting their unborn child.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is a terrible condition, severely impacting an individual’s ability to function and develop; however, creating shame around the already very gendered practices of drinking is not the way to protect people, not if we want our babies growing up in a society where men and women are equally as valued and respected. Foucault in the beginning of “Technologies of the Self” asks, “What must one know about oneself to be willing to renounce anything?” (1988 pp.17). While giving up alcohol is not renoucing anything and everything these recommendations essentialize women to baby-ovens, stripping them of the same agency and autonomy as men, and deploring their lack of responsibility to make choices regarding their own body.
Technologies of the Self.”, edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton, pp. 16-49. Univ. of Massachusetts Press.(1988), “
Irigary, L.(1977) “This Sex Which is Not One”in This Sex Which is Not One, pp. 23-34.
Featured Image: An image from a satire of the 8 kinds of drunk women in 1795. This woman, the “Princess” demands to be carried everywhere.