Booze or Babies?

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World Health Organisation Accused of Blatant Sexism in First Draft of Global Action Plan on Alcohol

Note: The content of this article is written in the view and opinion of the author

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently released the first draft of their plan to implement policies surrounding the sale and consumption of alcohol in all WHO regions. The plan stretches from 2022-2030 and has been deemed a public health priority. Yet within its 37-page draft, the WHO exhibits blatant sexism and patronising paternalism by seeking to remove the right of choice of women and people with uteruses surrounding the consumption of alcohol.

On page 17 of the draft, the WHO lays out that ‘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’. By their own volition, the WHO have defined ‘childbearing age’ as the ages of 15-49. This proposition of the prevention of all women and people with uteruses from drinking over the course of nearly four decades of their lives is a complete removal of personal and bodily autonomy by a global authority.

These propositions are further expanded upon in global targets 2.1 and 2.2 on page 18, which states that by 2030, 75% of member states will see the introduction of legislative measures to ensure the successful implementation of high-impact strategies surrounding reducing alcohol consumption. This suggests that preventing all women and people with uteruses from the ages 15-49 from drinking alcohol will become something of legislative ambition. This does nothing more than reduce women and people with uteruses to mere vessels for reproductive purposes, merely existing to have babies. There is also no consideration within the draft for women and people with uteruses who already suffer with infertility for a number of other reasons that are not related to consuming alcohol.

Yet the only apparent reason for the implementation of these restrictions as listed in this draft, aside a general global reduction of alcohol consumption, is to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Whilst FASDs can cause a lifelong and irreversible impact upon a child, both the NHS and CDC make it abundantly clear that FASDs are completely avoidable by not drinking alcohol at any point in pregnancy. There is little mention of FASD impacting women and people with uteruses who are of reproductive age, with the CDC mentioning that only those actively trying to conceive should avoid alcohol consumption. So why, therefore, does the WHO feel the need to place such stringent ‘preventive’ measures on millions of women and people with uteruses on the off chance they may choose to start a family. 

Furthermore, nowhere in the 37-page first draft does it discuss the potential risk and impact of alcohol consumption on the fertility of men and (what is the gender-neutral equivalent here?). If the WHO are so concerned for the safe conception and birth of infants, then why isn’t alcohol’s impact on male fertility/sperm count even mentioned? Even more indicative of the WHO’s blatant sexism and completely removes men and GN term from the narrative of childbearing.

Even when attempting to research academic studies on the impact of alcohol consumption on male fertility rates, it is shocking the number of articles that consider alcohol consumption when trying to conceive as the responsibility of women and people with uteruses. A Danish study of 1221 young men in 2014, published in the British Medical Journal concluded that: ‘even modest habitual alcohol consumption of more than 5 units per week had adverse effects on semen quality although most pronounced associations were seen in men who consumed more than 25 units per week …Young men should be advised to avoid habitual alcohol intake.’ Therefore, if this study was produced in 2014 and provides considerable evidence for the adverse effect of even moderate alcohol consumption on male fertility rates, where was this in the ‘input received’ by the WHO with which they drafted this plan.

Unsurprisingly, this publication of the first draft has not gone without substantial backlash. In a statement, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service Chief Executive Clare Murphy stated that ‘the narrative that women need to be stopped from posing a risk to foetuses – even those which do not exist – is used around the world to survey and criminalise women making decisions during pregnancy.’ She argues that with this draft, the ‘WHO actively ascribes foetuses rights they do not have in law’.

Whilst the consumption of alcohol remains a personal choice for everyone and raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol dependency is a positive global initiative, to condemn restrictions on millions of ‘women of childbearing age’ reduces women and people with uteruses to nothing more than vessels for reproduction and further demonstrates an alarming ignorance to the risks of alcohol upon men’s fertility. This may only be the first draft and nothing final, yet it is incredibly disturbing that this 37-page document is ‘based on input received thus far in the consultation process’, as it indicates an alarmingly patriarchal agenda for WHO policy in the next decade. This is just the beginning to taking ten steps back for the rights of women. The thought of my reproductive rights being left in the hands of an organisation and my personal choices to be taken away from me and a family I have not even decided to begin, remains to just be a simple reminder that as women we have a long way to go before we can be recognised as women rather than vessels to create another generation.

Sources:

WHO global action plan on alcohol first draft – https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/global-action-plan-on-alcohol-1st-draft 

WHO characterisation of ‘childbearing age’ – https://www.who.int/data/maternal-newborn-child-adolescent-ageing/indicator-explorer-new/mca/women-of-reproductive-age-(15-49-years)-population-(thousands) 

NHS on FASD – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/foetal-alcohol-syndrome/

CDC on FASD – https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html  

British Medical Journal on the impact of alcohol consumption on male fertility – https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/9/e005462  

Statement from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service Chief Executive – https://www.bpas.org/about-our-charity/press-office/press-releases/bpas-comment-on-the-world-health-organization-s-draft-global-alcohol-action-plan-2022-2030/

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