Alcohol, pregnancy and the politics of health advice

Alcohol in pregnancy
Alcohol in pregnancy 

Alcohol in pregnancy. It's something we've all got an opinion on. From 'a couple of drinks won't hurt' to 'how could you even RISK it!' it's a perennial debate on the Essential Baby Forums. Last week our parent company Fairfax published two articles about the subject, providing more background information to pregnant women struggling to make their mind up on the issue. It's important to note that the current Australian health guidelines state that there is no safe level of alcohol in pregnancy and the safest option is for women to abstain from all alcoholic drinks in pregnancy.

New Danish study finds low-to-moderate drinking not harmful
Low and moderate weekly alcohol consumption in early pregnancy was found not to be associated  with adverse neuropsychological effects in children aged five, according to a series of papers published in an online obstetrics journal last month and reported in the Canberra Times.

"Defining lower levels of alcohol consumption as one-to-four drinks per week, moderate as five-to-eight and high levels as nine or more, and classifying binge drinking as five or more drinks in one sitting, researchers found that low-to-moderate weekly drinking in early pregnancy had no significant impact on IQ, attention span, or executive functions such as planning, organisation and self-control."

They did find that high levels of alcohol were associated with lower attention span.

So, considering that it is not illegal to drink while pregnant, and there is no categorical research that the occasional glass of wine is harmful, is it discriminatory to refuse to serve alcohol to a pregnant woman? One mum thinks so.

The Babycenter debate
While dining with a friend in California last month, a member of popular parenting website BabyCenter was aghast when a waitress refused to serve her alcohol because she was pregnant.

"My friend ordered a glass of wine and before the server walked off, I said I would like one as well," she wrote. "She said she can't serve me. I said, 'My OB says a glass of wine in moderation is ok.' She replied that she has heard that before and still refused to serve me. I was flabbergasted, embarrassed and downright p*ssed. I ate my meal with my friend and decided not to make a scene. When I got home that night I looked up the law. Essentially she violated my civil rights, and discriminated against me."

As you'd expect post generated a flurry of online comments, not all of them in support of the member. Afterall, feotal alcohol syndrome is not to be taken lightly.

Everyone gets a say in the alcohol debate - except the foetus
Pamela Mirghani wrote an impassioned response to the BabyCenter debate, arguing that the baby should be given more consideration than the mother's civil rights in the alcohol debate.


"Growing up in a rough neighbourhood, the issue of substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty and disability were a reality for many of those around me. I came into contact with children and adults who suffered as a result of their mothers’ choice to drink while pregnant," she explains.

"One such example is a beautiful young woman I know who was born to a mother who continued to drink and smoke throughout the pregnancy. She and several of her siblings have disabilities as a result and it’s heartbreaking to see how difficult it has made their lives."

"Had waitresses refused to serve their mother the outcome may have been different."

What is a standard drink anyway?
Professor Elizabeth Elliott, faculty member of Paediatrics and Child Health at The University of Sydney and Children's Hospital, Westmead, believes that by reporting studies such as the Danish research and indicating that alcohol is harmless to pregnant women in small doses, the is a risk that the research will be misconstrued.

"We have to be very careful and the media has to be careful of these issues that are potentially harmful. If you've got someone who does drink during pregnancy they will be reassured with that sort of message and they'll think, 'Oh, that's fine. I can keep going,'" she said. "One of the problems that women tell us is that they get mixed messages. They get messages that it's okay, not okay, one drink can hurt them, binge drinking is the only thing that hurts them. What we are saying is that the safest option – as the National Health and Medical Research Council and Department of Health and Ageing propose in their guidelines – is that women avoid alcohol during the period of pregnancy and when planning a pregnancy," she tells the Canberra Times.

Even the Danish study authors  stress that the amount of alcohol in a standard drink varies significantly from country to country (pint of beer, anyone?) and conclude that the most conservative advice for women is to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy.

Treat us with respect, women say
Many feminists are unimpressed at being told what to do in pregnancy - especially when a conservative 'just don't drink at all' stance is taken. French intellectual Elisabeth Badinter says,

"They [doctors] treat women like babies - they take us for idiots. This idea infuriates me. For sure, it is not recommended to smoke a packet of cigarettes a day when one is pregnant... even though I did it! I recognise that one has to be careful, but one glass of wine in the evening is not going to do any harm."

Studies suggest that the majority of Australian women are heeding the abstinence message, with 38 per cent of women currently reporting alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Interestingly, it's older mothers who are more likely to drink, perhaps confused by the changing advice on the subject. From 2001 to 2009 health guidelines said it was safe to drink small amounts of alcohol while pregnant.

Have you ever been refused a drink when pregnant? Comment on this article on the Essential Baby Forums.