Alcohol, pregnancy, experts, and evidence
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control recently released a new advisory regarding the use of alcohol during or around pregnancy. According to the CDC, any drinking by women ‘who are pregnant or might be pregnant’ constitutes ‘drinking too much.’ The primary reason for the label is the risk of a fetus developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, although Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and miscarriage were listed as well. The range of the recommendation is rather wide – the CDC targeted any woman who might be or become pregnant (so, any sexually active woman capable of becoming pregnant). The recommendation has been widely criticized.
A number of commentators noted the shaky evidential basis for the advisory. Regarding Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, for example, there is a lot we do not know regarding the amounts of alcohol that are dangerous, and it has been suggested that genetics might play a role in propensity to develop the Syndrome. Regarding SIDS, some evidence suggests the link between alcohol and SIDS is moderated by parents co-sleeping with infants after abusing alcohol – but the advice offered by the CDC did not flag this indirect (potential causal) link.
Writing in the LA Times, the philosopher Rebecca Kukla also emphasized the contributions such messages make to creating a culture of shame surrounding women and pregnancy (here). Writing for Time, Darlena Cunha argued that the CDC advice is overly paternalistic, and discriminates against women (here).
I do not wish to justify the CDC. I rolled my eyes like many others when I first heard of the recommendations. But here’s a question: why might the CDC release such an advisory? I could imagine someone thinking like this. Well, there should be higher awareness of potential damages of alcohol on a developing fetus. The CDC has the function of alerting the US public to various health risks, and is something of a trusted source as it fulfills this function. But people will not base their decision on the CDC alone. They will be biased in their assessment of evidence, and they may also rely on the first bit of pseudoscience to pop up on Google. So we should come out forcefully, in the hopes that our voice will count for more than a more moderate recommendation might. This way, perhaps we will do more good. (Imagine trying to convince your kids not to run out into the road. You might scare them out of such a behavior by emphasizing the very unlikely but goriest possible outcome.)
Of course, I have no idea how the CDC reasoned nor what led to the nature of the advisory they released. What I want to ask is whether institutions we trust to deliver evidence-based advice ought to reason in this way.
Arguably, they should not. We want our experts to be experts, not to be another source of bloviating rhetoric in the public sphere. Evidence-based experts have the credibility they do because they know the evidence. It seems plausible, then, that our experts should fulfill their function in a certain way. They should pay attention to the way their messages are framed. Their messages should be framed in a way that respects people’s autonomy over their own health choices, and that treats decision-makers as reasonable individuals capable of weighing relevant evidence. Doing so would presumably lead to a more moderate message – one that, in this case, emphasized the potential links between alcohol use and fetal alcohol syndrome, that admitted just how much we do not know regarding this question, and that stressed potential reasonable responses to the existing evidence. Importantly, this can be done without overstating the case, without ignoring the nature of the risk (as seems to have happened regarding the alcohol-SIDS link), and without ignoring the amount of risk associated (as seems to have happened regarding the alcohol-Fetal Alcohol Syndrome link).