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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Health authorities have for some time warned women of the dangers of drinking while pregnant. However, when medical researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and at Trinity College in Dublin examined data for women giving birth at a Dublin hospital, their findings indicated that these authorities are not getting through to a particular group of mothers: namely, unwed mothers.
The Irish researchers well understand why it matters whether pregnant women drink or abstain. They indeed define the context for their study by citing a number of studies that have implicated a pregnant woman’s ingestion of alcohol to her child’s later “behavioural and cognitive deficits in childhood and adolescence.” It is thus because some women persist in drinking during pregnancy that pediatricians with “children affected by alcohol-induced effects including neuro-behavioural deficits, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and alcohol related birth defects.” To prevent such harmful alcohol-induced effects, the Department of Health and Children of Ireland has informed Irish women that “alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy,” thus echoing “the advice [from] the Surgeon General in the United States—that pregnant women or women who may become pregnant should abstain from alcohol.”
But not all Irish women are heeding these warnings. Seeking to identify the social and personal characteristics of women who drink during pregnancy, the Royal College and Trinity scholars parsed medical records for 61,241 women who gave birth to a child in a large maternity hospital in Dublin between 2000 and 2007. Their statistical analysis identifies a number of background characteristics—including being particularly young and being in a first pregnancy—typical of mothers who drink during pregnancy. But marital status stands out as one of the very strong predictors of drinking during pregnancy. Compared to women who do not drink at all during pregnancy, women who do drink are almost twelve times as likely to be unwed when they deliver their child (Odds Ratio, 11.80; Confidence Interval, 7.28–19.2).
Health officials in Ireland and the United States will continue to recommend strongly that women avoid alcohol during pregnancy. But it would appear that their recommendation might not carry much weight with many pregnant women who wear no wedding ring.
(Aoife Mullally et al., “Prevalence, Predictors and Perinatal Outcomes of Peri-Conceptional Alcohol Exposure—Retrospective Cohort Study in an Urban Obstetric Population in Ireland,” BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 11 [April 11, 2011]: 27.)