CDC to younger women: Better take your birth control before you drink that glass of wine

Women clink wine glasses at an event.

Women clink wine glasses at an event.

(Christina House / For The Times)

Attention ladies: The CDC is trying to kill your buzz.

You may think you’re just another carefree young woman, casually sipping mimosas at brunch or having a glass of wine at the end of a long day. But you’re not. According to the CDC’s new recommendation, you’re a potential fetal incubator -- a fact you should be aware of, and planning around, at all times.

On Tuesday, the CDC put out a Vital Signs report and infographic detailing their new guidelines. The official recommendation is for women of childbearing age to abstain from alcohol unless they are on birth control.

“More than 3 million U.S. women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, having sex and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy,” the report proclaims.


An accompanying infographic lists these potential risks, including heart and kidney problems, low IQ and “trouble with the law.”

“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,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, said in a statement.

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

The report itself underscores this sentiment.

“Women who are pregnant or who might be pregnant should be aware that any level of alcohol use could harm their baby,” it warns. “All types of alcohol can be harmful, including all wine and beer.”

Binge drinking certainly can lead to problems, such as miscarriage and birth defects. But the science surrounding light drinking and pregnancy isn’t entirely settled.

The idea that there’s no “safe amount” of alcohol comes up often: Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University, tackled this subject in her 2013 book “Expecting Better.”

“The statement that occasional drinking has not been proven safe could be applied to virtually anything in pregnancy,” Oster writes. Because you can’t ethically do double-blind testing on pregnant women and ask some of them to drink alcohol, there is no official peer-reviewed study that conclusively states whether the occasional glass of wine negatively affects a developing pregnancy.


Similarly, you cannot ethically do a double-blind study giving pregnant women varying amounts of acetaminophen or caffeine; however, the CDC has made no official recommendations suggesting women cease consuming coffee or taking Tylenol. (The Mayo Clinic says Tylenol is safe for occasional headaches and says two cups of a coffee a day is fine.)

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In her book, Oster did a meta-analysis of studies about outcomes related to drinking and pregnancy. After reviewing the available literature that met her standards as an economist, she concluded that 1-2 drinks a week in the first trimester and even up to a drink a day in the second and third trimesters should be fine.

A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health backs up her; researchers found no cognitive or behavioral differences between children born to women who abstained from alcohol and women who had 1-2 drinks per week during pregnancy.

So the CDC is being aggressively cautious in its recommendation. It’s not inevitable that any alcohol consumption will cause birth defects. As for the “Why take the risk?” argument, Oster pointed out in a follow-up Slate article that every behavior has risks.

“Driving in a car carries some risk to your baby, and your fetus does not benefit from that vacation you took,” she writes.


Furthermore, many women -- and men, for that matter -- have said the CDC’s message has a condescending tone. Their umbrage is all over Twitter:

The infographic in particular seems to get carried away with its message. For instance, a list of the risks that “any woman” faces by “drinking too much” includes “sexually transmitted diseases” and “unintended pregnancy.” These risks come into play after exposure to a member of the opposite sex, not a glass of wine.


Also, the recommendation flat-out ignores a large group of sexually active women: the ones who are having sex with other women.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter @jessica_roy.


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