Women (and men) on social media are lashing out at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accusing the federal health agency of overstepping its boundaries. The agency warned women of child-bearing age who are not currently using birth control about the risks of drinking alcohol.
In the Vital Signs report released Tuesday, the CDC's principal deputy director, Dr. Anne Schuchat, warned that alcohol can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can permanently harm a baby.
The damage could be happening before a woman realizes she is pregnant, according to the agency.
“Why take the chance?” Schuchat asked. About 3.3 million American women between ages 15 and 44 are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, the CDC analysis found.
The report urged women to stop drinking alcohol if they are trying to get pregnant or could get pregnant, and to ask their partner, family and friends to support their choice.
It also encouraged health providers to screen all adult patients for alcohol use at least yearly and to advise women not to drink if there is a chance they could get pregnant.
“About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won't know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking,” she said. “The risk is real.”
While it clearly was a well-intentioned public health message, the backlash online may result in a public relations hangover. “Clearly employees of the #CDC are drinking on the job!” wrote one woman on Twitter. Others called the campaign “incredibly condescending” and sexist.
“Will you be recommending no alcohol for all men,” asked one Tweeter, “…because it leads to rape, violence, STDs, cancer and babies with women who are drinking?"
The CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities analyzed data from the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth, which looks at aspects of family life, such as marriage, divorce, pregnancy, infertility and use of birth control.
The goal of the report was to make women more informed of the potential risks, the CDC's Lela McKnight-Eily, an epidemiologist and clinical psychologist on the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention Team, told the Huffington Post.
"We think that there are a lot of mixed messages out there, and we want to give women a clear message that there is no safe time, there is no safe amount or type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy."
Where the CDC's message may have gone wrong was to single out women, many of whom took it as government interfering in the control of their bodies.
The National Health Service in the United Kingdom, on the other hand, has had success with its “Dry January” campaign, which encouraged all people to go alcohol-free for one month.
About 71% of the people who registered for the website were female and registrants were asked at one and six months about their outcomes.
People who successfully completed the month-long drinking detox also demonstrated a greater ability to say no to drinks or to reduce the number of drinks they consumed at six months. “So did the non-completers, albeit to a lesser extent,” the analysis found.