NOFAS Responds to Statement on the Risks of Alcohol During Pregnancy Made in a Popular TED Talk

NOFAS objects to a statement claiming that moderate drinking is safe during pregnancy made by Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel in a TED Talk video posted his month that has been viewed over 500,000 times.

Dr. Jawed-Wessel is a sex researcher and an assistant professor of public health and health behavior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

TED is a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED Talks are influential videos from expert speakers on education, business, science, technology, and other topics.

NOFAS objects to the highlighted passage in the following statement by Dr. Jawed-Wessel in her 15-minute talk titled, “The lies we tell pregnant women:

“So how many of you ever had a stranger touch your belly during pregnancy, maybe without even asking your permission first? Or told what you can and cannot eat by somebody who is not your doctor, your medical care provider? Or asked private questions about your birth plan? And then told why those choices are all wrong? Yeah, me too. Or had a server refuse to bring you a glass of wine? This one might give you pause, I know, but stay with me. This is a huge secret. It is actually safe to drink in moderation during pregnancy. Many of us don’t know this because doctors don’t trust pregnant women with this secret.

The statement that it is safe to drink alcohol in moderation during pregnancy is inaccurate. According to the CDC and the U.S. Surgeon General, “There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. There is also no known safe time during pregnancy or safe type of alcohol.”  NOFAS has detailed information on this topic, including research articles, videos, and statements from medical experts at nofas.org.

Blogger Jennifer Gunter posted a detailed response to Jawed-Wessel’s claim,  A Ted talk claims OB/GYNs lie to pregnant women about alcohol and sex. It’s wrong. Here’s why, that states in part:

“Alcohol is a teratogen. It has been proven to cause birth defects and no study has definitively established a safe dose…. Doctor’s aren’t keeping anything from women because we think they can’t be trusted, we just don’t have clear science to make a clear recommendation about a safe dose of a known teratogen.”

The top-rated comment on the TED Talk website for this video makes the point very well:

“I know that the choice to abstain from alcohol for 9 months is not an easy one, and maybe even near impossible for women who live with addictions, trauma, and other adversity. But especially for women who have the resources and support to willingly make that choice, this shouldn’t be framed as a sacrifice or violation of their individual rights – it should be framed as a well-informed decision to ensure the best possible outcomes for their child.”

Dr. Jawed-Wessel responded to this comment with additional statements that NOFAS objects to, such as: “I do know though that the medical community in the US inflates the danger of drinking in pregnancy.”

The medical societies that have issued position statements on alcohol and pregnancy have all followed the science in determining that the best advice is to abstain from alcohol due to the risk of birth defects. NOFAS strongly disagrees with Jawed-Wessel’s assessment, and believes that the medical community needs to do far more to educate people on the risks of alcohol during pregnancy.

While it is true that heavy and binge drinking during pregnancy pose the highest risk for the developing baby, the unknown genetic risk makes it impossible to foresee the pregnancies that are potentially vulnerable or resistant to occasional light drinking. Moderate drinking is understood to be a higher rate of consumption than light drinking, so a broad statement that drinking in moderation during pregnancy is safe is wrong and reckless.

The meaning of the terms moderation and moderate are also unclear when referring to alcohol consumption. The scope of consumption amounts and patterns defined by consumers as moderate is wide-ranging.  Any message advising that all consumption estimated as moderate is safe is extremely irresponsible. Such a message can give individuals addicted to alcohol—who are most often in denial of their addiction—license to drink, and in the case of a pregnant woman place her developing baby at risk.

NOFAS objects to Dr. Jawed-Wessel’s advice that the public adopt her tolerance of risk and that the medical community conspires to mislead woman. The truth is practitioners and public health professionals follow the science and the principle of protecting newborns in encouraging alcohol-free pregnancies.