CDC faces backlash over alcohol warning to women

Recent advice on how to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has prompted a backlash.

The CDC report warned that "more than 3 million U.S. women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, having sex, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy."

Therefore, it said women should avoid alcohol if they are sexually active and not using birth control.

"Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant," CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat, said in a statement. "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. The risk is real. Why take the chance?"

But the warning has not been well received by many women who called the advice sexist and condescending.

"You may think you're just another carefree young woman, casually sipping mimosas at brunch or having a glass of wine at the end of a long day. But you're not. According to the CDC's new recommendation, you're a potential fetal incubator -- a fact you should be aware of, and planning around, at all times," Jessica Roy wrote in a piece for the Los Angeles Times.

An Atlantic headline on the topic sardonically warns women: "Protect Your Womb From the Devil Drink."

While the message from the CDC is well-intentioned, as certainly some women may be unaware of the risks of alcohol use during the early weeks of pregnancy, the tone of the message touched a nerve.

Many commentators argued that instead of telling women of child-bearing age not to drink if they're not using contraception, government officials should make birth control more accessible.

Additionally, the CDC report warns that drinking alcohol can make a woman more vulnerable to violence and sexually transmitted diseases. But many critics were quick to point out there is no warning to men that drinking can lead to these outcomes.

"That's the last time I drink merlot alone in my apartment. I don't want herpes," Alexandra Petri wrote in a Washington Post op-ed entitled, "The CDC's incredibly condescending warning to young women."

The CDC's message has also reignited the debate over whether any amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy.

For decades, researchers have known that heavy and frequent drinking during pregnancy can lead to birth defects, but the effect of the occasional glass of wine is much less understood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) both advise women to completely abstain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

However, some doctors say they've seen little evidence of harm in patients who had an occaisonal drink before they knew they were pregnant.

Hal Lawrence, an OB-GYN and CEO of ACOG told NPR that he's seen many patients who'd had a glass of wine or two before they knew they were pregnant. "I practiced for 30 years," he said, "... and generally you can reassure those [women] that it's not an issue."

The American Beverage Institute, which represents alcohol companies, has also weighed in on the CDC's new warning, calling it "puritanical."

"While the excessive use of alcohol during pregnancy clearly has a harmful effect on unborn children, advising all fertile women to avoid any alcohol simply isn't a realistic solution to this public health problem," Sarah Longwell, managing director of the ABI, said. "The more prohibitionist the agency's stance, the less seriously the public will take its message."

CBS News medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips said the CDC's guidance was well-intentioned but not well communicated. The agency just aimed "to remind women that pregnancy doesn't start the moment you discover you're pregnant. Pregnancy actually usually starts several weeks before, sometimes up to six or even eight weeks before. So if you're drinking during that period of time, you're exposing your fetus to alcohol," she said.