Sunday, April 26, 2009

Drinking for two?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Browsing the New York Times' website, I found a column I've never seen before - "Social Q's," by Philip Galanes. Apparently, people can write in to the Style department with awkward situations, and Galanes will respond with snarky quips. Usually, I look at advice columns and wonder why people can't figure out these problems by themselves (or why they think a random stranger can tell them what's socially appropriate). But at the top of this week's column, there was a situation that I think would present a real quandary for most people. "Anonymous" wrote:

"At a family gathering, I got up to get myself a drink and asked if anyone wanted anything. My boyfriend’s visibly pregnant cousin asked me for a vodka tonic. I was so uncomfortable. Was I really supposed to make the pregnant woman a drink?"

We've all seen the warnings on the backs of the wine bottles telling pregnant women that the surgeon general would really like it if they wouldn't drink. And if you live in New Jersey, you see a sign in every restaurant bathroom (it's actually a law) with the helpful reminder that pregnant women "never drink alone." The implication is plain: if you drink during pregnancy, you're going to hurt your baby (other ads show silhouettes of pregnant women with a long tube stretching from mouth to baby - which is not quite the way it works). It's often couched in terms of a necessary maternal sacrifice (there are even books that tell pregnant women how to "survive" the 9 months without alcohol), but there is a lot of moralizing around pregnancy and alcohol. Only a bad mother would drink during pregnancy.

Galanes responded to the question with a somewhat confusing answer - he said that he probably would have given her a drink (oh so cleverly remarking that pregnant women are not "vestal virgins"). But he goes on to tell "Anonymous" that he or she should not have to do anything that makes them uncomfortable (which is true) and suggests that she or he present the mother-to-be with a weak drink, on a tray, with a pack of Marlboro Lights. Classy. There's nothing like a good dose of shame.

The fact is, and I know that this defies many of our cultural conventions, drinking during pregnancy is not the worst of all sins. I'm taking a class on reproduction in America this semester, and my professor, Elizabeth Armstrong, has actually written about the "moral entrepreneurship" that caused fetal alcohol syndrome (what the surgeon general is worried about) to loom so large in American consciousness. Moral entrepreneurship occurs when someone, usually a person in an elite position, decides that a practice or situation is wrong, and works to correct it. Prohibitionists are often cited as examples of moral entrepreneurs, but doctors are also in a position of unique power when it comes to moral entrepreneurship, because they hold an unusual amount of authority. When a doctor tells you that drinking or smoking during pregnancy is bad for your baby, you are in no position to argue. And that pronouncement carries a lot of moral weight.

The studies that were conducted in the 1970s, when fetal alcohol syndrome was first being diagnosed, focused on birth defects in children who were born to alcoholic women - women whose alcoholism was significantly threatening their own health. But there is a large difference between drinking lightly and alcoholism, one which was not really interrogated by the researchers. And many other causes of birth defects remained unexamined. Not all women who were chronic alcoholics were having babies with FAS; this difference actually had more to do with socioeconomic status. In some cases, the gap was due to nutrition, not alcohol consumption.

In Europe, people approach this issue with much less moralizing, and more acknowledgement of the gradation involved. There is a difference between a pregnant woman who gets delirium tremens when she doesn't drink every day and a pregnant woman who has the occasional cocktail at a family gathering. It's certainly not advisable to consume large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy, but this is really more about moral control than concern for the fetus, as evidenced by the treatment of women who use drugs during pregnancy - instead of getting help for the addicted women, our government penalizes them. Instead of discouraging alcohol consumption during pregnancy (as they do in Europe), we downright prohibit it. And this is obviously because women secretly want to hurt their fetuses (the famed maternal-fetal conflict), and really, they don't know what's best for their babies or their bodies.

So "Anonymous," give your boyfriend's "visibly pregnant" cousin the drink. Don't sermonize - she's a grown woman, and probably knows more about pregnancy than you do, given the volume of literature shoved at pregnant women these days. And if you're really concerned (or care about her), for God's sake, don't shame her - it's rude, and it's sure as hell not going to endear you to your boyfriend's family.


At April 27, 2009 at 3:10 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

Agreed. It's the woman's choice to do what she wants with her body, and we can assume that she knows what's what. Even if her drinking causes problems for the baby, it's her choice and others have no grounds to moralize about her actions.

At April 27, 2009 at 3:11 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

I should add that what's even more toxic about this advice columnist is his suggestion of "shaming" the woman for her choice. What happens between the mother and her crotchspawn is nobody else's business. We need to get rid of the Patriarchal idea of public shaming, not just for this but for every social circumstance.

At April 27, 2009 at 5:14 PM , Blogger John said...

Some would say that "what happens between a man and his wife is nobody else's business" and that if he hits her, it's the mans choice to do what he wants with his fists, and we can assume he knows what's what. Even if his abuse causes problems for his wife, it's his choice and others have no grounds to moralize about his actions.

This is an argument, however, that I think most, including myself, would find horribly offensive. Unfortunately, I find that its logic bears a striking resemblance to that expressed in your comments. Having power over someone else doesn't give you a right to abuse them, be it physically or chemically.

At April 27, 2009 at 7:17 PM , Anonymous Chloe said...

I think what Angela's trying to say is that what a woman does with her own body is her own business. As such, if she requests a drink, surely she's done what any rational human adult does when making a decision: she's weighed the costs and benefits of having that drink - and as this article shows, those costs aren't just the potential minimal costs to the fetus, but also the judgment and damnation she'll have to endure. In other words, we trust women to carry the next generation in their bodies. We should probably start treating them like adults, capable of making informed decisions.

At April 28, 2009 at 3:30 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

But Chloe, don't you see?

When you have people like Angela, you realize that people don't always act with other's best interests in mind.

SURE, I can trust Angela to make informed decisions, ABOUT HER OWN PREFERENCES, but I'll be damned if I trust her with her baby's preferences. And it is for this reason that smoking in bars has been outlawed, mind you: because we can't make good decisions when taking other people into account.

Plus, what I think John is getting at is that what a man does with his own property (ie. his wife) is his own business. So, again, Angela's logic is specious. And I won't even get into calling the baby a crotchspawn. Sadly, what a women does to her body becomes MY business when she is harming another human being. That's my line of thought and calling the baby a crotchspawn just to desensitize people to fetuses is working and is just disgustingly unintellectual and rhetorical.

It just really blows my mind that for the past 30 years feminism has been trying to make the private sphere more public so women can get more rights and freedoms, but as soon as they do, they do exactly what the patriarchs were doing to them. Well, if feminism ever had a leg to stand on, then my pro-life does too.

At April 28, 2009 at 7:09 PM , Anonymous Chloe said...

"for the past 30 years feminism has been trying to make the private sphere more public so women can get more rights and freedoms,"
Er, no. At least, not when it comes to pregnancy. When it comes to pregnancy, feminism has been about making the issue more private, so that decisions around pregnancy, instead of being made by the state, are made by the woman, and, if she chooses, the father of the child, her doctor and her spiritual adviser. So, in the above "Social Q" dilemma, unless the person is the pregnant woman's partner, doctor or spiritual adviser, it's really none of his business whether or not she has a drink.
If he believes, as you do, that the fetus is a person, then by all means, he should feel free not to serve the pregnant woman the drink she asks for, in much the same way as healthcare providers are allowed to opt-out of medical procedures that violate their moral or religious codes. Of course, it's also his right to publicly shame the pregnant woman, but it does sort of make him look like a condescending idiot, especially since the pregnant woman probably knows a fair bit more about her body and her baby than he does.
If we're going to trust women to carry tiny people around inside them - and you do indeed believe they are tiny people - and to raise them after they're born, then we also need to trust women's judgment to make decisions that take into account what's best for those tiny people.

At April 28, 2009 at 8:05 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


Can you explain your rationale for this statement:
"...especially since the pregnant woman probably knows a fair bit more about her body and her baby than he does."

We all have access to the same information, don't we? Being pregnant doesn't automatically make one more knowledgeable.

Having said that though... publicly shaming anyone in this situation is probably a bad idea, simply out of concern for the person rather than a fear of appearing condescending. I would decline to serve a drink in this situation, but try to keep the verbal exchange as private as possible under the circumstances.

At April 29, 2009 at 12:17 AM , Anonymous Chloe said...

We do all have access to the same information, about pregnancy in general. But the man writing in with this query knew nothing about this woman's condition except that she was "visibly pregnant." He knew nothing about the details of her pregnancy, nothing about she discussed with her doctor about alcohol consumption. That's what I mean when I say that you really know nothing about her body or her baby. When women are pregnant, they become experts on what's going on in their own bodies with their own personal pregnancies, which is what's at the center of the issue here: this woman's body, pregnant or not, is her own, and whether or not she consumes alcohol is a choice she makes, in partnership with the father and her doctor. If you believe, on a large public health scale, or as a part of your moral beliefs or your understanding of the medical literature, that it's wrong to serve alcohol to a pregnant woman, don't do it. But you are really in no position to tell this woman what to do with her body and her pregnancy.

At April 29, 2009 at 6:56 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


Just a few points to keep in mind:

1. Not all women become experts when they become pregnant.

2. I believe the well-being of another person besides her is involved in this situation. I wouldn't want to serve her alcohol for much the same reason that I wouldn't want to serve alcohol to a small child, or to someone who clearly intended to give the drink to a small child.

3. I don't think we know that the person writing the question wasn't a woman. This is not particularly relevant, except for the fact that you have repeatedly referred to this person as a man.


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