How can I criticize a social marketing campaign that’s trying to prevent a fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD)? It’s certainly an important social cause. But so is treating women with respect. Bear with me here.
I spotted this ad at my neighbourhood liquor store. Where I live, in Ontario, Canada, alcohol is sold by a government monopoly. As part of their corporate social responsibility, they host campaigns by various alcohol-related not-for-profit organizations.
This one, FASworld.com, presents a simple message: FASD is 100% preventable, so just don’t drink any alcohol if you’re pregnant, and we can easily wipe it out.
Simple, eh? Well, perhaps not.
Few human life events are as fraught with anxiety and social intervention as pregnancy. In societies in which abortion is not considered an option, a pregnant woman no longer has ownership of her body. The developing personhood within her is considered more important than her right to body autonomy. In extreme cases, women’s lives have been sacrificed in favour of the baby inside.
These are extreme cases, but I’m sure women you know who have been pregnant can tell you how, as soon as they start to show, friends, family and complete strangers start to judge and police everything they do — whether it’s general taboos like smoking or street drug use, or more obscure “don’ts” such as eating sushi or soft cheeses, or even dyeing their hair! Every woman is in a rights-based society is free to make her own choices, of course, but in the back of her mind is always the fear that her choices might cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or developmental problems. Should one of these unfortunate outcomes occur, she may blame herself. Or worse, others might blame her.
This is the situation with alcohol and pregnancy. While the science does not find negative effects for small amounts of alcohol in pregnancy, many health authorities take a “zero tolerance” attitude towards alcohol for pregnant women. This is a simple policy solution, but what does it say about women? That they are not capable of making truly informed decisions about their bodies and their pregnancies?
When I express this opinion publicly, some always respond with “is it so hard to just not drink for nine months?” and “is it worth gambling on the health of the baby?” Maybe. But you could say the same about so many things a woman does while pregnant, from what she eats and and how she exercises to just existing in the chemical soup we call an environment.
This campaign sounds positive, but there’s a second read here: “If you love your body, and love your baby, you won’t drink any alcohol while pregnant.” Or worse: “IF you drink ANY alcohol while pregnant, you obviously don’t love your body or your baby, and if the baby has problems it’s your fault!”
Personally, I think most women are smart enough to understand what moderation means. And those with substance abuse problems won’t be convinced by this ad, they’ll just feel more isolated.
The end does not justify the means, especially if it means shaming women. We can do better.
Update: There is also a video.