by Nona Blyth Cloud
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) just issued a report that tells all women of child-bearing age they should stop drinking alcohol entirely, even if they have no plans to get pregnant, because they could possibly have an unplanned pregnancy, and any drinking might harm a fetus.
“Drinking too much for women means any alcohol use if you’re pregnant,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director for the CDC, during a conference call with the media. “It’s not as much how many drinks, it’s any drinks if you’re pregnant—at any time during the pregnancy.”
The CDC has taken a hard line stance against any amount of alcohol during any stage of pregnancy—even, essentially, pre-pregnancy or could-be-pregnancy.
But other experts and activists say that such guidelines are too all-encompassing and fail to respect women’s ability to weigh risks.
The CDC has long taken a stance of “better safe than sorry.” When asked about the risk for a woman drinking very mildly while trying to get pregnant—a process that can take months or even years for some—the CDC’s Schuchat said, “We can’t put a number on that for any individual woman, but what we can say is that fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are 100 percent preventable if there’s no alcohol exposure at all,” she said. “So that’s why we say, ‘Why take the risk drinking any alcohol during, any time in the pregnancy, even before you realize you’re pregnant?’”
Rebecca Kula, a professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and author of “Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies” strongly disagrees: “We don’t tell pregnant women not to drive cars, even though we are much more certain that there’s a risk to their fetuses from each car ride than from each drink,” she said. “….. zero risk is both impossible to meet and completely paralyzing to try to meet.”
Kukla argues that such guidelines are also excessively punishing. “The idea that the pleasures and routines that make up women’s days are mere luxuries that are not worth any risk whatsoever is patronizing and sexist,” she said. “And it would also turn their lives into complete hell if really taken to [its] conclusions.”
That hell is already happened to a growing number of women who have been prosecuted for substance abuse during pregnancy.
The first known indictment of an American woman for drug use in pregnancy was in California in 1977. But an appeals court ruled that lawmakers did not intend to include unborn children within the meaning of the word ‘child.’
Women have been put on trial for substance abuse while pregnant in every state except Delaware, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont. Most of these cases have failed. But not all of them.
Arizona — In 2003, a woman was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison after her infant, who tested positive for crack cocaine, died shortly after birth.
Mississippi — In 2014, the state’s high court ruled that a woman whose stillborn baby tested positive for cocaine could not be charged with ‘depraved heart murder,’ but it left open the possibility that she could be prosecuted for manslaughter.
Oklahoma — An Oklahoma mother was sentenced to 15 years in prison for second-degree murder after the 2004 stillbirth of her meth-exposed baby. More recently, drug-using pregnant women have been charged with criminal child neglect.
Three states now have laws which make substance abuse while pregnant a crime:
Alabama — Under Alabama Supreme Court rulings in 2013 and 2014, prosecutors can charge a woman who uses drugs during pregnancy with chemical endangerment of a child.
South Carolina — In 1997, the state supreme court held that a fetus is a person and “maternal acts endangering or likely to endanger” a viable fetus are a form of child abuse.’
Tennessee — In 2014, after Tennessee passed a law criminalizing drug use during pregnancy, a federal judge added six years to a woman’s meth-manufacturing sentence because she was pregnant.
The CDC report may encourage these states to add alcohol to their lists of proscribed substances for pregnant women. The report could be used to justify prosecuting women for drinking even a glass or two of wine prior to discovering they were pregnant. With the ever-increasing number of new laws limiting access to abortion for more and more women, this report could put millions of women at risk of being arrested, tried, and incarcerated while pregnant.
There are no laws in any states making it a crime for men who are substance abusers to have sex with fertile women, even though their drug or alcohol use could also have a negative impact on fetal development.
Meanwhile, the people of Flint, Michigan, has been poisoned by dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking water, and many children have already been found to have suffered permanent developmental damage. There have also been deaths from an outbreak of Legionnaires‘ disease which are being studied to determine if they are related to the lead poisoning. One can only hope that agencies like the CDC, the EPA and the FBI will quickly complete their investigations, and that the men responsible for the decisions which led to this crisis, especially those who tried to quash the medical findings for months, will be prosecuted for these clear cases of child endangerment, and depraved indifference to the health risk to an entire community.
Alcohol and Substance Abuse:
- CDC Report on Alcohol Use by Fertile Women —
- State Laws and Prosecution of Substance Abuse by Pregnant Women
Propublica — https://projects.propublica.org/graphics/maternity-drug-policies-by-state
- Center for Disease Control — http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/lead/en/
- World Health Organization — http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/lead/en/