CDC: Women who don't use birth control shouldn't drink

Agency also outlines how providers should address the issue

Sexually active women between the ages of 15 to 44—considered to be a woman's childbearing years— should abstain from consuming alcohol unless they use birth control, according to a CDC report released Tuesday.

According to CDC, alcohol consumption by a pregnant woman can lead to "lasting physical, behavioral and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child's lifetime." Such conditions, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, affect an estimated 40,000 infants born in the United States annually.

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CDC says there is no known amount of alcohol that is safe to consume during pregnancy.

Recommendations apply to 3.3 million women

For the report, CDC researchers looked at data from the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth.

The researchers found that about 3.3 million women who drink alcohol are sexually active but do not use contraceptives, meaning they are at risk of exposing a fetus to alcohol. According to CDC, many women do not know they are pregnant until about four to six weeks into a pregnancy.

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Further, the researchers noted that 75% of women who are trying to become pregnant continue to drink once they have stopped using contraceptives.

"The risk [of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders] is real," says Anne Schuchat, CDC's principal deputy director. "Why take the chance?"

Takeaways for providers

Coleen Boyle, director of CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, says it's "critical" for providers to:

  • Determine women's drinking habits during standard medical visits;
  • Advise against drinking at all if women are pregnant, attempting to become pregnant, or are sexually active and not using contraceptives; and
  • Recommend services if women need help to stop drinking.


Mark DeFrancesco, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, praises the recommendations, adding that the risk of exposing a fetus to alcohol underscores the need for providers to discuss contraceptives with their patients.

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However, others derided the recommendations, Daniel Victor reports for the New York Times.

Olga Khazan writes in the Atlantic the recommendations are "way too broad" and imply that "women have no knowledge of or control over their own fertility." The American Beverage Institute, a trade association, calls the recommendations "incredibly puritanical" and an unrealistic solution to the public health problem of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Even observers who are sympathetic to the new recommendations acknowledge that it will be difficult to convince young women to follow them. As Wanda Filer, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says, "Some women will take this advice, and some will not"(Szabo, USA Today, 2/3; Reinberg, HealthDay/U.S. News & World Report, 2/2; Izadi, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 2/2; Victor, New York Times, 2/3; Khazan/Beck, The Atlantic, 2/3).

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