On Feb. 1, the CDC released new guidelines urging women of childbearing age to avoid drinking alcohol unless they are using contraception. This new guideline is designed to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which are caused by a fetus being exposed to alcohol in utero. FASD is a 100 percent preventable condition.
According to the CDC, more than 3.3 million U.S. women are at risk of exposing a developing fetus to alcohol because they drink, are sexually active, and don’t use birth control and are therefore at risk for an unplanned pregnancy. Furthermore, three in four women who would like to get pregnant as soon as possible report drinking.
Image: Jocelyn Runice for SELF
“Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant,” Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the CDC, said in a statement. “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. The risk is real. Why take the chance?”
This recommendation is the latest of many moves to educate women about FASD. For instance, all alcohol bottles are labeled with a government warning about drinking during pregnancy, which was made mandatory by the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act (ABLA) was passed in 1988.
In the 1980s, physicians who had once advised pregnant women that they should have a couple of drinks to relax, or prescribed alcohol drips to stave off preterm labor, were realizing that exposure to alcohol could be extremely harmful to fetuses in utero. Alcohol is a neurotoxin that can be freely passed from the mother to a fetus through the placenta, harming development and in cases causing structural abnormalities in the brain.
Kathy Mitchell, a young mom who binge drank while pregnant with her second daughter in the ’70s, recently shared her story with SELF. Her daughter Karlie has severe FASD and at age 43 has the intellectual capacity of a first-grader. Mitchell simply did not know that alcohol could be harmful to a fetus, and stresses the importance of educating women, their partners, and their doctors about the risks.
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding alcohol use during pregnancy. SELF spoke to the experts, and they answered some common questions for us. Here’s what they had to say.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.