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Why the CDC Warnings About Women and Alcohol Is Actually a Red Herring

If you think it’s just about women, booze and babies, think again.
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Earlier this week, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) issued a warning that sexual activity combined with alcohol consumption posed dangers to the healthy development of future offspring. If you are fertile and averse to birth control, the CDC warned, then you shouldn’t drink at all.

The Atlantic, Slate, JezebelElle, USA Today, and other outlets have covered the outrage over a scenario straight from science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick's short story about pre-crime. The CDC warns that no woman capable of childbearing should drink, ever, for it puts her at risk of endangering her precious future hypothetical progeny with hipster names like Zygote. Drink, and she’d be committing…let’s call it a prenatal sex crime. Because at any time without warning, the fertile among us might accidentally get busy and procreate a fetus, whose potential wants and needs take priority over the actual (unworthy, alcoholic, Pill-dropping) baby-makers.

Under the rubric of public health, a government agency has set itself up to be the morality police, and it has set its sights on drinkers. “Basically, this is a modern form of Prohibition,” notes bioethicist Elizabeth Yuko. The devil’s advocate may needle: what’s so wrong with that? Who cares if a bunch of godless feminists demand the right to booze up and boff whomever they please? The judgy might want to reconsider that stance, because these exact same warnings don’t just apply to women. They also apply to men.

Though the CDC only issued a dry factsheet about the health consequences of drinking for men, the warnings apply even more broadly to them, given that females are capable of childbearing roughly between 15 and 44 years of age, but men are capable of fathering children for basically the rest of their lives after puberty. Meaning, a cis-male in the United States could never touch the devil’s drink until he has one foot in the grave, because his sperm would be viable years before he reached the legal drinking age. Considering how closely seduction is aligned to the idea of a jug of wine & thou, a public health mandate turning drinkers into social pariahs will mean that the only folks getting lucky in the foreseeable future will be Muslims and Mormons. (Adherents of both religions eschew drugs and drink.)

Numerous studies have shown that men who regularly smoke and/or drink adversely affect the quality of their sperm. Smoking is known to damage sperm DNA and correspondingly its genetics, even as men who drink as few as one beer daily tend to make sperm with physical deformities.  As one medical paper observed: “it is well known that alcohol consumption produces significant spermatozoon morphological changes which include breakage of the sperm head, distention of the midsection, and tail curling.”

Translation: if a drinking man fathers a child, there’s betting odds that his offspring will be less than fully robust even if the untrustworthy incubator—let’s call her “mom”—lived on nothing but organic vegetables and handcrafted vitamins inside a hypoallergenic isolation chamber while gestating the delicate soufflé in her oven. And if there are conflicting reports that men can drink and smoke as much as they please without affecting their sperm? Guess what? There are also studies suggesting that pregnant women can drink in moderate amounts and the fetus will not only be fine, but the mother’s overall wellbeing will be improved.

So where does that leave things? In the interests of giving women good information, it is wise to alert them to some potential impacts from overconsuming alcohol, including the tragedy of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  But if we agree to acknowledge that drinking by pregnant women can potentially impact fetal development, perhaps we ought to also discuss the fact that the father’s contribution plays a role in determining a child’s biological health from the moment of conception. How? It’s because gene mutations, such as those leading to schizophrenia, are passed on by sperm. According to Dr Kari Stefansson of Decode Genetics, sperm from a twenty-year-old male passes on 20 genetic mutations, whereas a 40 year old passes on 65 mutations. By the CDC’s own preemptive logic, then, it should be issuing a warning to all men over twenty and penalizing them for fathering children.

Too draconian? Of course it is. And that is the point.

Overall, the number of factors affecting pregnancy outcomes are numerous and varied. The furor over the CDC’s recommendations isn’t because women believe their right to drink is more important the health of their babies. It’s because the paternalist stance reduces all women-- including the willfully nulliparous and members of the LBGTQ community uninterested in reproducing—to their wombs, thereby rendering their entire existence from puberty to menopause subservient to a potential life they could be nourishing. Meanwhile, even as the medicalized misogyny reinforces the trope of the boozy trollop, it fails to act with equal concern to address difficult infant outcomes due to genetically compromised sperm.

Sperm is vulnerable to more than just aging. Consider that “pregnant women are discouraged from dying their hair and using certain soaps, shampoos, nail polishes, makeup, sunscreen, acne washes and other cosmetics because of some suspicious ingredients,” noted science journalist Olivia Campbell. She goes on: “An oral antifungal medication used to treat yeast infections was found to increase the risk of miscarriage. A BPA substitute in plastics was linked to premature birth and poor reproductive health. Eating non-organic food might be a bad idea. Just don’t eat too many organic potatoes if you’re trying to get pregnant, because excessive pre-pregnancy potato consumption was associated with gestational diabetes.”

Campbell concludes that “everything is suspect” when you’re pregnant. Now change the subject of this carcinogenic, teratogenic assault from “pregnant woman” to “human,” and the full magnitude of the problem should become clear. It’s not the impact of drinking on human health that is the elephant in the room, but the fact that humans drink in order to pretend that our everyday environment isn’t killing us softly while Rome burns. The most vulnerable populations are, as always, the world's poor, who will find themselves pariahs again for their disarray and unruliness. In this debacle, the book that keeps on getting cited is Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid Tale. Perhaps we ought to be talking instead about Children of Men.

 

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Paula Young Lee is a cultural historian, food writer, and backwoods cook. Her latest book is "Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat." Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee
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