You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Women Are More Than Freestanding Uteruses

Menahem Kahana/Getty

If your social circle includes any women who might become pregnant, you’ve likely heard the new CDC message about the risks of drinking. The risks, you see, they apply to women. Well, women and fetuses, and not necessarily in that order of importance.

The report has infuriated many. Stripped of nuance, the infographic
is a best described as a masterpiece of offense-bait: Female alcohol consumption is blamed for “injuries/violence,” “unintended pregnancy,” and “sexually transmitted diseases,” which—as Alexandra Petri helpfully reminds us—leaves out the place of men in all this.

What unnerves me isn’t the advice, but its expression—specifically the phrase “women who […] might be pregnant.” A woman is a human being with varied desires and obligations, including but never limited to those desires that relate to having kids. A pregnant woman is a woman who’s pregnant; a “woman who might become pregnant” (WWMBP), meanwhile, is a freestanding uterus whose value is only in the life she may create. 

The problem with WWMBP—the reason, that is, that it even riles many women who want or have children—is that it places the female experience at a remove from the human one. Every life choice, everything consumed, at any time, gets reinterpreted through the lens of pregnancy; it defines all achievements and pleasures that don’t serve the goal of producing healthy offspring as irrelevant. WWMBP isn’t a biological category as much as it’s an ideological one.  

There’s something in WWMBP rhetoric to aggravate women on both sides of the Great Divide: Younger women not interested in getting pregnant, and not-as-young women who balked at the idea that it’s something they even had to think about. The CDC’s alcohol prohibition applies to “women who are pregnant or might become pregnant” (emphasis theirs). To be clear, preventing fetal alcohol syndrome is a very good idea. It’s that pesky “might” that bothers me. Whether you’re a 22-year-old woman who’d rather not take a pill every day in anticipation for sex that happens twice a year, or a 38-year-old woman who’s been trying to get pregnant for a decade, you’re a “might” who shouldn’t be drinking. But there is some useful advice in the CDC’s report. 

On Jezebel, Jia Tolentino spells it out: “[I]t seems sensible to recommend that women in this category—women who abruptly stop using birth control in the interest of getting pregnant—should consider a cease-and-desist on their dinner wine,” she writes, acknowledging that it might not occur to women who have recently begun trying for a child. And among the intended audience for the report, I think there’s readiness to accept this as an unpleasant bit of biological unfairness. Maybe too much so.

One could argue—as Tracy Moore does, tongue-in-cheek, in Vocativ—that the CDC’s real mistake was missing the role that alcohol and other lifestyle factors play in male fertility. “[M]ore experts suspect that its men who pose the greater genetic risk to fetal health,” writes Moore, yet no one’s telling them to cut out enjoyable activities because of the tragic babies that will result from failure to adhere to some secular version of Mormonism (or, I suppose, the religion itself). That there is scientific evidence in favor of tracking men’s ‘purity,’ yet this doesn’t happen, suggests something other than concern for theoretical children is going on.

While a gender-neutral or gender-aware infographic would have been less irritating, it wouldn’t have addressed the other issue with the report, which was the puritanical impulse behind it. Any risk-assessment discussion needs to involve some sort of recognition that benefits also exist. Clearly there are potential risks to alcohol consumption by the WWMBP set, and by their male equivalents. But there are also dangers in chucking social life as we know it. Especially if—as the report suggests—what’s involved is the de facto sex segregation of adult social life. But really, no big deal.