A couple of weeks ago a headline on Twitter caught my eye, ‘WHO says women of childbearing age should be BANNED from drinking alcohol’. I was surprised, but I refused to believe a headline that seemed so utterly ridiculous. The World Health Organisation surely wouldn’t write that in a report?
So I checked. And I checked some more.
To my, and I am sure many others, shock and disappointment I found that while the WHO had not quite phrased it in such explicit terms, they might as well have done.
The WHO’s initial draft of the Global Action Plan on Alcohol was released on the 15th June. The plan is a response to over-consumption of alcohol worldwide and includes suggestions to help reduce the harm it causes. However, if you flip to Page 17 the following comment can be found:
“Appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among children and adolescents, prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age.”
It would indeed seem the WHO has suggested that women “of childbearing age” should be prevented from consuming alcohol.
Matt Lambert, CEO of the UK’s regulatory body for alcohol the Portman Group, described this report as going “well beyond their remit” and as being “not rooted in science”.
He said: "As well as being sexist and paternalistic, and potentially restricting the freedoms of most women, it goes well beyond their remit and is not rooted in science. It is wrong to scaremonger in this irresponsible way and associate women’s alcohol-related risks with those of children and pregnant people.”
The fear here is the very real risk of damage that alcohol can have on foetuses. According to research, the UK has the 4th highest prevalence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD) with an estimated 17% of children displaying at least mild symptoms.
The WHO may have no power over whether or not I and other uterus having people can drink alcohol or not, but it nevertheless remains horrifying that a global institution would so readily and clearly convey misogynistic ideas in influential reports.
Am I really to be reduced to nothing more than my ability to reproduce? In 2021 is this still what my societal worth is dependent on? What about women who never want children, and women who can’t? Women who do want children but just not yet. Must they also not drink before the age of, say, 50?
They have assumed that ‘we’ all want the same thing. Which we, of course, don’t. To police women’s choices and bodies for around 40 years is a gross infringement of civil liberties and would never be suggested to men, despite the fact that alcohol can adversely affect the male reproductive system as well.
Women must not be punished simply for making a very normal choice.
Nor should women feel they need to start questioning those choices, making a sexist report an internalised issue.
The WHO have, thankfully, backtracked on the guidance after uproar. In a statement to Newsweek they said that the report “does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant”. Nonetheless the issues it has raised remain. The report is not just itself wrong but indicative of a world which continues to define women and womanhood by their reproductive status.
This is inherently exclusionary of many women. From trans women to women who have gone through menopause to women who have had hysterectomies - the world is full of women who don’t have a uterus let alone one that can produce children. But it certainly doesn’t make them any less of a woman than anyone else.
Owning a uterus should not be a life sentence.