Yesterday, the CDC released a recommendation for sexually active women who don’t take contraception to not drink alcohol. This stems from a desire to reduce the number of babies being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome is certainly a detrimental problem and it is laudable that it is being addressed, but the way in which the CDC is going about handling the effects of this problem shows how ingrained certain views of women and women’s bodies persist.
My issues with this recommendation are two-fold. First off, the CDC is essentially saying that I am just a pregnancy carrier and not a person with agency. Now the Huffington Post was right; the CDC didn’t walk into a bar, smack my beer out of my hand, and demand to see my proof of birth control rather than my ID. But at the core of this statement, I read advice that situates a possible fetus as being more important than the autonomy of a living, independent person. When the CDC endorses this logic, women (and let’s be honest, it is talking about cisgender women here, essentially “othering” women who don’t fit in the spectrum) are all reduced to potential incubators. I understand it is a recommendation and I don’t have to follow it if I don’t want to. That isn’t the point here, though. The problematic point here is the CDC’s advice is indicative of how entrenched sexism is.
The CDC is the leading national public health center of the United States. It isn’t conservative, it isn’t liberal- it is a health institute; ergo, it is something that lacks the “political agenda” of needing women voters or having to undergo elections or needing a platform that differentiates itself from the Urgent Care down the street. But here it is, reducing women to non-agents and brooders for mere possibilities, positioning a woman’s autonomy as being less important than the fact she is capable of having a baby. This all illustrates that this type of sexism and reductionism of a specific sex is a systemic problem, not one created by political needs.
In that same vain, it is startling to realize that this recommendation is targeted solely at women, which seems odd given men’s drinking also contributes to fetal alcohol syndrome. In a recent study at the University of Copenhagen, scientists found “the average man had more than 90 percent abnormal sperm” when his average pre-conception environment included alcohol consumption. So why is it that men are also not included in this newest CDC recommendation? Perhaps it is because we value child bearing in women to the point that capability trumps their autonomy; but, for men, once again their role and responsibility in reproduction is down played.
Now I mentioned my contention was binal, so let me switch gears to my second point. The CDC says that it has released this recommendation because of the rate of unplanned pregnancies. If you have already made the causal argument that unplanned pregnancy increases the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, why not address the causal issue you identified? In 2016, California and Oregon will make birth control pills readily available over the counter, meaning more women can have access to the pill that is more on par with how readily available condoms are. If unplanned pregnancy is the causal mechanism of FAS, increasing access to contraception can help. Now that could be one superb recommendation for all states. OTC birth control and more widespread distribution of Plan B type pills can also help in cases of unplanned pregnancy the CDC avoids mentioning: rape victims.
The most cited study of unplanned pregnancies and rape estimates that at least 5% of unplanned pregnancies to term are product of rape. By making contraception more available, as well as emergency contraception, women who may not or cannot seek medical help for whatever reason they experience can still take care of their bodies as they see fit. Since the CDC seems to like making recommendations, it can also make recommendations to provide safer access to abortions. The CDC isn’t bogged down with politics or religion, so it should be a matter of providing access to safe avenues for medical procedures.
I understand the CDC had good intentions for making this recommendation; however, it is important to recognize and process the effect the statement. Good intentions don’t really mean much if you continue to push ahead with the same one-sided, gendered rhetoric after being told how offensive it is. If the CDC really wants to continue through and address FAS, it needs to broaden its scope of recommendations and approach the issue with a more holistic, encompassing view.