Solid advice, clumsy delivery from the CDC

The Observer editorial board

An infographic from a CDC report warning women about alcohol.
An infographic from a CDC report warning women about alcohol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There were good intentions and strong logic at the core of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning this week about women and alcohol. Some thoughtful editing would have been helpful, too.

The warning, contained in a CDC report released Tuesday, said that more than 3 million women between ages 15 and 44 expose their newborns to fetal disorders because of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Those disorders can cause lifelong disabilities in their children.

To be safe, the CDC recommended women abstain from alcohol altogether if they’re not using birth control.

This no-alcohol advice comes with a healthy dose of logic. Most women don’t know they’re pregnant for about four to six weeks, the CDC said, and alcohol in any amount isn’t safe during pregnancy. So if you drink and don’t use birth control, you risk the health of a baby you don’t know you’re having.

That conclusion didn’t go over well with everyone, including women who called the recommendation “puritanical” and an over-the-top edict that treats them like an “incubator.” The CDC has science on its side, however, and its recommendation was just that – a recommendation. Women can choose to heed or dismiss it.

But then the CDC got clumsy.

In an infographic released with this week’s report, the CDC warned in bold type: “Drinking too much can have many risks for women.”

Among those dangers: “injuries/violence” and “unintended pregnancy.”

We get this. Sort of. What the CDC is saying – we hope – is that alcohol can diminish our ability to make good decisions, and that women (and men, for that matter) who drink too much can make poor choices or put themselves in positions where others can take advantage of them.

But the CDC didn’t actually say that, and by using shorthand instead, the infographic echoed a very old and very dangerous message: That women are responsible for the bad things others do to them – that they control the actions of men by the way they dress or converse or, in this case, drink.

That’s wrong, of course, but strains of that kind of thinking have been used forever to deflect responsibility from those who harm women.

Do we think that’s what CDC officials intended? No. But this week, a good and simple message – be careful – got tangled in a presentation that wasn’t careful enough.