Yesterday, the CDC released a study that stated that women who are sexually active and not using birth control should also not use alcohol.
The reaction, especially from my people - my wonderful, brilliant feminist people - was fierce and quick. I’ve heard a chorus of : “women are not incubators”, “I’ll take pictures of me doing shots and send it to the CDC” or “WTF?!”.
Of course, my people are right. Women are not incubators. We are so much more than our uteruses. We have fought hard, and will continue to fight, to be valued as whole people and to have control over our own bodies. Women have chained themselves to buildings, starved, marched, voted, filibustered and died for us to have control over our uteruses and our decisions around our sexuality and our reproduction. When a government agency does or says something that sounds like it’s impinging on that freedom, we fight back. Because we have to.
And, in this instance, the CDC is also right.
Stick with me for a little bit.
Pre-natal alcohol exposure can have devastating effects on a developing fetus’ brain. It can, and does, result in permanent and irreversible brain damage. The CDC estimates that 1 in 20 school age children in the United States are living with the effects of pre-natal alcohol exposure.
1 in 20 children are living with brain damage that is 100% preventable.
How did you feel when the governor of Michigan said, “Oh, it’s just a couple IQ points” in reference to lead poisoning? Yeah.
It’s not ok.
Pre-natal alcohol exposure can cause:
· Low birth rate
· Heart and kidney problems
· Low IQ
· Learning disabilities
· Difficulty with reasoning and judgment
· Impaired social communication
· Inability or reduced ability to understand cause and effect
This constellation of symptoms has significant life impacts. 60% of people living with FASD will be in trouble with the law. 94% also live with a mental illness.
Alcohol is more dangerous to fetuses than cocaine or heroin.
That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. People who are pregnant certainly shouldn’t use cocaine or heroin. Cocaine or crack exposure can result in post birth drug withdrawal, high pitched cries, hyperactivity and learning disabilities. And, with early intervention it is unlikely to result in debilitating long term impacts. The whole freak out over crack babies in the 80s? It turns out that, with support, they’re fine.
Kids with damage from pre-natal alcohol exposure are not fine. No amount of support will fix or re-pattern the brain around the damage.
But, there has to be a level of drinking that’s fine, right? At what level of exposure does damage occur? The thing is, we just don’t know. They used to say it happened with binge drinking (4 drinks or more in one sitting – yeah, I know, that was nothing in college). Some women have drunk far more than that and their kid has no noticeable effects. Others have drunk less and their kid has significant effects. Since fetuses grow quickly and different systems develop at different times, it seems drinking one day matters more than drinking another. But we don’t know which days those are. Or how much alcohol it takes.
Isn’t there a study? There’s no ethical way to do a study that intentionally exposes pregnant people to alcohol. So we’re stuck with this. There is some amount of alcohol that will cause permanent brain damage to a fetus on some days. Since we have no clue what that amount is, it’s probably best to not drink any alcohol at all if you’re having unprotected PIV sex. And certainly best to not drink more than one drink.
Shouldn’t folks just stop drinking when they find out they’re pregnant if they want to continue the pregnancy? Unfortunately, damage can occur before someone knows that they are pregnant. Do you have a dime? Go get it. Check out the ear on Eisenhower. Tiny right? Damage can occur when a fetus is that small. Who the hell knows they’re pregnant at that point?
So back to the CDC.
As women we get told all the time what to do with our bodies. It’s not ok. The way the CDC and the media communicated this information came with a patriarchal, paternalistic tone.
Please don’t let the packaging destroy the message. We, as people with uteruses, have the capacity to eliminate this form of brain damage. And we should.
If someone who may be capable of getting pregnant, is engaging in penis in vagina intercourse, and they choose to not use a method of pregnancy prevention (any method), there’s a good chance that they will get pregnant. In fact, over a year of unprotected intercourse, there’s around an 80% chance of getting pregnant.
Brain damage from alcohol can happen before most people have even realized that they’re pregnant. Therefore, if you’re having this kind of sex and not consistently using a birth control method, it would be best if you also did not use alcohol.
Here’s what the CDC should have said:
If you’re having the kind of sex that could result in pregnancy and you don’t want to be pregnant, use birth control. And drink alcohol (or not) in a way that makes sense for you.
If you choose to not use birth control and/or you’re in a relationship or situation where birth control is not an option, it would be best if you didn’t use alcohol.
If you find out that you’re pregnant and choose to continue the pregnancy, it would be best if you didn’t use alcohol.
If you are unable to give up alcohol, using less alcohol is better than using more.
We are capable of making good decisions. We just need good information. We are powerful, and smart, and amazing.
Now go fuck as you want to. Drink in a way that is healthy for you. And make the best choices you can.