The following article by Israeli wine writer Daniel Rogov was originally published on one of my blogs, the Women's Wine Critic Board. Unfortunately, that site no longer exists so I thought I would republish this article here. Mr. Rogov's article is controversial and thought-provoking.
Neither this article nor my role as publisher are meant in any way to support or condone irresponsible consumption of alcohol before or during pregnancy. Alcohol bingeing and elevated drinking are serious health threats. I hope you enjoy this article and the other content on this blog; please feel free to leave comments. __________________________________
Since 1990 every bottle of wine, beer and spirits sold in the United States has carried the warning that “according to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects”. If that has not been enough to add to the anxiety of women already concerned about their own health and the health of their fetuses, hundreds of newspaper articles and TV talk shows have been devoted to convincing women that if they have even a single drink during their pregnancy that there is a chance that their baby will be born deformed, addicted to alcohol or retarded.
It seems, however, as if the American government, medical authorities and media have not been telling American women the entire truth. Although the official message is “don’t drink at all during pregnancy,” a great deal of recent research and a re-examination of the alcohol-pregnancy issue show that there is no conclusive evidence to demonstrate that moderate drinking during pregnancy can harm the fetus.
According to Drs. David Whitten and Martin Lipp of the University of California at San Francisco, “the campaign against drinking during pregnancy started in 1973 when several studies showed that heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause a condition known as ‘Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.’” These studies demonstrated that the children of many alcoholic mothers were born with a cluster of severe birth defects. “What the government conveniently chose to ignore” say Whitten and Lipp, is that “this syndrome is extremely rare, occurring only 3 times in 100,000 births, and only when the mother drinks abusively throughout her pregnancy”.
No one questions the fact that the consumption of large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can harm the fetus. It has been well established, for example, that the children of women who drink more than 3 - 4 glasses of wine daily show significant decreases in birth weight and length than of women who drink 1 - 2 glasses daily, and it is generally accepted that having five or more drinks per day is especially dangerous to the fetus. Here, however, agreement ends, and Genevieve Knupfer of the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley, California says that part of the problem comes about because many of the studies that reported adverse effects on the fetus used imprecise methodology. In several studies, for example, researchers arbitrarily defined “heavy drinkers” as those women who consumed more than one glass of wine daily.
Feeling even more strongly, Dr. Michael Samuels of New York City’s Doctor’s Hospital says that the data has been “turned around for the purpose of frightening women,” and indicates that birth defects of any kind occur in 3 - 5% of babies born in the United States and only 1 - 2% of those can be related to alcohol. Based on the data of Samuels and other medical researchers, it becomes clear that less than 0.1% of all birth defects are related to alcohol, and that more than 90% of the affected children are born to women with a history of alcohol abuse.
Not a single study carried out since the mid-1980’s has shown a direct correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and birth defects. One study, of 33,300 California women showed that although 47% drank moderately during their pregnancies, not one of their babies met the criteria for Fetal Alcoholic Syndrome! The authors of this study concluded “that alcohol at moderate levels is not a significant cause of malformation in our society and that the position that moderate consumption is dangerous is completely unjustified.”
Some studies go as far as to indicate that light to moderate drinking may actually improve the chance of successful pregnancies. A 1993 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology by Ruth Little and Clarence Weinberg concluded, for example, that there were fewer stillbirths and fewer losses of fetus due to early labor among women who consumed a moderate level of alcohol. That some alcohol can be protective against pre-term birth is also supported by Dr. Martha Direnfeld of Haifa University who points out that alcohol is known to stop unwanted uterine contractions, and thus has “saved many pregnancies that might otherwise have spontaneously aborted.” Moreover, Dr. Robert Sokol of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse in Detroit has shown that it is light drinkers and not abstainers who have the best chance of having a baby of optimal birth weight! In their book Alcohol and the Fetus, Doctors Henry Rosset and Lynn Wiener have presented data that shows that children of moderate drinkers tend to score highest on developmental tests at the age of 18 months.
Despite these and many other findings, the United States government, the AMA, the BMA (British) and the vast majority of American and English doctors continue to recommend complete abstention from wine, beer and spirits during pregnancy. An examination of why this is true reveals that the issue is as emotional, ideological and political as it is medical. Well respected wine writer Jancis Robinson, has declared that “in this, our male dominated society, men feel entitled to lecture pregnant women on how they should best discharge their responsibilities to their unborn children.” In a similar tone, Katha Pollit, writing in The Nation, claimed that “all of these warnings allow the government to appear to be concerned about babies without having to spend any money, change any priorities or challenge any vested interests.”
No one argues that alcohol consumption during pregnancy, is totally risk-free, but as Thomas Matthews stated in his article in the Wine Spectator, “it is important to ask: risky when compared to what?” In her recently published book The Myths of Motherhood, Shary Turner indicates that alcohol is far from the only risk factor pregnant women are warned against. Other “risky” items include caffeine, chocolate, raw oysters, unpasteurized cheese, tropical fruits, drugs that alleviate cold symptoms, nail polish, suntan lotion and hair dye, all of which in some amount may harm the fetus. Turner’s conclusion is that “the only risk free pregnancy is one that is meant less to benefit the baby than to imprison the mother in anxiety and self-reproach.”
In the absence of 100% certainty about the issue, many continue to insist that abstinence is the best advice to give pregnant women. Others, however, see this attitude as illogical and have concluded that the risks and benefits associated with light to moderate regular wine consumption compare quite favorably with most other activities of daily life. Doctors Whitten and Lipp write that “light, regular wine consumption, or one or two glasses of table wine per day can be part of the healthy lifestyle for most people, including pregnant women.” Gynecologists Howard Carp and Martha Direnfeld also feel that women who drank healthfully before pregnancy are not endangering their fetuses if they go on drinking in the same way during pregnancy. Dr. Carp states “an occasional glass of wine or any other drink is fine, no problem at all, and those women who drink a glass of wine once or twice a week with their meals should not feel any guilt or fear at all.” Dr. Direnfeld acknowledges the harm of drinking in excess but feels that “a reasonable amount of alcohol, say a glass of wine per day, will not harm the baby.”
It is true that all of the evidence has not yet been gathered, but it is difficult not to see the logic of the conclusion of the Wine Spectator: “When it comes to drinking, evidence demands interpretations and decisions require judgment. Women are capable of choosing for themselves.”
Readers are welcome to leave comments and I appreciate your input. However, based on former experience with this article, the following rules apply. Insulting posts and personal attacks will be deleted. Anyone who claims to be raising or fostering children with FAS must provide proof in the form of a link to a blog or article, or a private message containing proof. Your privacy will be respected.