To care about your health is to constantly keep tabs on science's latest developments. It's no easy task, as new studies continually update you with reports saying chocolate is good for you, wait, no, it's bad for you! You're binge drinking too much—no, actually, drink more red wine! Running is the perfect exercise; no, it's too tough on your joints.
Amid all those confusing health headlines, though, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still managed to push the boundaries of human patience when they recommended this week that sexually active women who aren't on birth control not drink alcohol. Record scratch. What?!
Their suggestion came in an infographic about fetal alcohol syndrome, and it rubbed many women the wrong way. It seemed to imply that women should constantly monitor their bodies and behavior to protect their hypothetical fetuses—or even that women's only purpose is to reproduce.
What's the real deal here? Could the CDC really intend this advice to be taken seriously? Dr. Allison Rodgers of Fertility Centers of Illinois breaks down the real message behind their confusing infographic.
Scientists Will Probably Never Finish Studying Pregnancy
After all, it's pretty miraculous! There's still so much to discover about how humans become humans that we can't be too annoyed when the rules switch. "If you look at the science behind recommendations, it's always evolving and changing," says Rodgers.
"I was pregnant with my youngest just four years ago, and we weren't talking to pregnant women then about lunch meat then. Four years ago is not that long ago!" she remembers. Now, she has to advise her patients not to consume deli meat unless it's been heated up, since several pregnant women have died of listeria from bad meat.
But There Are a Few Things We Know for Sure
"We know too much alcohol causes birth defects. We know having rubella causes birth defects," Rodgers says of the old-timey disease you were inoculated against as a child. "It's similar to encouraging pregnant women not to smoke." Some rules that are seemingly obvious now weren't so a generation or two ago, and this infographic was likely the CDC's attempt at reminding women of this particular guideline. (How Bad Is Drinking While Pregnant?)
They Aren't Trying to Annoy You, They're Trying to Protect As Many People As Possible
First it was smoking and drinking, then sushi, then coffee, soft cheese, lunch meat (and these 6 foods that are off-limits during pregnancy). Is there anything fun that pregnant women are allowed to touch? And how come pregnant ladies in Japan get to eat raw fish, and in France they still get to sip vino (albeit occasionally)? Again, the science is always changing, but we typically look to our own federal agencies or national medical groups for these suggestions.
"Organizations like the CDC need to make guidelines," says Rodgers. "The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says if you're pregnant you shouldn't drink." But she's not quite sure why the CDC decided to make a pronouncement about fetal alcohol syndrome right this second. "I'm not sure what prompted this," she admits, "but I'm sure they looked at the epidemiology of fetal alcohol syndrome and had women who said, 'But I didn't know I was pregnant!'" Hence, you wind up with a blanket statement that women who could be pregnant shouldn't drink.
Yes, the CDC's Advice Was Overly Simplistic
More than half of pregnancies are unplanned. The drinking recommendation might have been easier to understand if that weren't the case. Because, yes: Women who are actively trying to get pregnant should not be drinking, particularly when they're ovulating, says Rodgers. But what about the rest of us?
"For all the women who understand their bodies and their cycles, it's a little demeaning. It feels a little paternalistic," says Rodgers. The bottom line is, alcohol will hurt your fetus, but we don't know how much drinking or how often, or what kind. Not yet. If you're not actively trying to have a baby (and would go so far as to say you'd abort if you did become pregnant), then you really don't need to worry about protecting that potential fetus. (Find out why one woman did drink during her pregnancy.)