CDC overestimates alcohol-exposed pregnancies

glass of red wine
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control released a report that advised sexually active women not to drink alcohol unless they were using birth control. After a public outcry against their overly broad recommendations, they clarified that their concern was aimed at women drinking while trying to become pregnant. They shared an estimate that about 3.3 million women each month are at risk for alcohol-exposed pregnancies.

To help ground the debate around alcohol risk and pregnancy, Bixby researchers used the same data as the CDC to estimate the expected actual number of pregnancies in which alcohol is used. They used more specific assumptions, including looking at birth, miscarriage, and abortion as possible pregnancy outcomes and the actual chances of becoming pregnant from unprotected sex.

They found that the estimated expected number of alcohol-exposed pregnancies in the United States is about 2.5 million fewer than the CDC researchers’ estimate of women who are “at risk” for such a pregnancy.

This research is not intended to question the importance of focusing on alcohol use during pregnancy as a public health problem. Instead, it emphasizes that vastly overestimating the scope of this problem can contribute to moral panic. That can lead to more stigmatizing and punitive policy approaches that have been show to result in poor health outcomes.