Bioethics Blogs

The CDC’s Graphic on Women and Alcohol is Flawed: Why That Matters

Last week, as part of its monthly Vital Signs report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an infographic outlining the risks that drinking can pose for women, and advising that they avoid alcohol when not on birth control. On its face, this is a benign – intuitive, even – framework: alcohol is bad for fetal development, and may result in miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or sudden infant death syndrome. CDC’s likely intention was to present in an easily understandable fashion its new guidelines, which come out of the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth. It found data-driven evidence to support the claim that “drinking any alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can cause a range of disabilities for [the] child.” In other words, the most charitable interpretation of what the CDC was trying to do here is to hammer home the idea that women should not drink while pregnant, period.


But the CDC’s graphic is not about fetal health: it highlights the risks of excessive drinking for women. The reason it does this is simple: since, according to the new recommendations, any amount of alcohol can harm even the least developed fetuses, and women often do not know that they are pregnant for several weeks after their first missed period, it follows that any woman who might become pregnant (to the CDC, that means any sexually active woman not on birth control) should abstain from alcohol.

The logical train that gets you from “alcohol is bad for fetuses” (which, let me be clear – nobody is questioning) to “sexually active women not on birth control should not drink” is more of a logical rollercoaster, but it’s worth the ride.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.