Should Women Drink Alcohol While Pregnant?

Striking numbers of expectant mothers are deciding that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional drink of alcohol. New studies suggest that they may be right, but the medical establishment is hardly convinced.
drink alcohol while pregnant

Photos by Jana Leon

Striking numbers of expectant mothers—professional, educated, and informed—are deciding that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional drink of alcohol. New studies suggest that they may be right, but the medical establishment is hardly convinced. So are these moms-to-be valiantly pushing back against political correctness gone awry, or are they simply part of a new generation of entitled narcissists, unwilling to sacrifice even for the health of their babies?

For most of my life, I believed that my mother, who smoked until I was in my teens, had at least quit during the months she was pregnant with me, her only child. It wasn’t until recently that I found out this wasn’t the case. She’d never actually stopped, so maybe I could’ve been taller, after all. Back then, though, it was fairly standard to drink and smoke and eat cold cuts while carrying a baby: A good friend born the same year I was reports that her mom got stoned the night before giving birth. My aunt, meanwhile, remembers being pregnant with my cousin in the early ’80s and having her Boston obstetrician advise that she cut back on cigarettes—to half a pack a day.

My mom had issued the lie in part, I assume, because by the time I was old enough to ask, smoking was no longer a recommended practice among the gestational, and because I was a kid who tended to like to assign blame. By 1984 the surgeon general had mandated labels on all cigarette packages warning women that smoking could cause fetal injury, low birth weight, and premature birth. This was not long after the surgeon general’s official position for pregnant women became to abstain from drinking and smoking completely, following a study that identified a group of physical and mental birth defects now known as fetal alcohol syndrome. As it was, I had been crediting my poor showing on the Presidential Fitness one-mile run to a childhood spent in the confines of my mom’s Nissan Maxima, hotboxing our way through afternoon errands. Armed with the information that she’d also smoked throughout what were literally my most formative months, I’m sure I would have been a sanctimonious nightmare. Eventually, I badgered her into quitting when I was 15. I told myself, and her, that if I was to become a mom one day, I would neither smoke nor drink.

Many people were soon taking an equally rigid position. After the surgeon general issued the new guidelines, the United States experienced a massive societal shift away from smoking and drinking by pregnant women. So complete was the transformation that by 2005, the surgeon general was advising women who were simply trying to get pregnant to also quit drinking entirely, just to be safe. But in more recent years, the mood, and the rhetoric, around drinking during pregnancy have begun to shift yet again. Lately, we’ve seen the publication of study after study showing that, rather than dooming the unborn to a lifetime of birth defects and personality problems, the occasional drink or three may actually be free of negative consequences. One recent finding even suggested that as many as eight drinks in one week, and up to five in one sitting, may have no significant effects.

And so lots of educated, informed, and professional women are giving themselves license to drink. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.6 percent of pregnant women drink at least occasionally. Among college-educated women, however, that number jumps to 10 percent, and of those between the ages of 35 and 44, 14 percent consume alcohol. These days, spotting your pregnant-with-twins lawyer neighbor having a glass of wine with dinner isn’t quite as shocking as it once was.

The moms-to-be who are choosing to drink aren’t thoughtless or careless women given to making blind decisions. They’re part of one of the most informed generations of mothers in history, middle- and upper-class professionals in their late twenties, thirties, and forties. They read all the books about having healthy babies. They eat organic food and work out in fancy gyms. They travel the world, always seeming to bump into pregnant women around Europe who smoke and drink and pop out beautiful, brilliant children.

And yet, their decision to drink while expecting puts them in the middle of what may be the greatest divide among the pregnant and those who come in contact with them—which, of course, is all of us. That’s because pregnant or not, woman or man, everyone, it seems, has an opinion about everyone else’s drinking habits, especially if the everyone else in question is carrying a child. I’ve seen friends at both ends of the spectrum—from the one who sat at home for the first six months of her pregnancy for fear of doing anything that could possibly harm her baby to the one who took a far more “European” approach. (If pregnant ladies in Europe are, in fact, doing Jäger shots.) I’m also hearing them judge one another and the comparative health of their babies—out of earshot, of course. And I have to wonder: Is there such a thing as “drinking safely” while pregnant? And who has the right to say? Are we basing decisions about drinking while pregnant on science? Or something else?