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.