New York Is Doing Something Controversial for Pregnant Women

May 11th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

Bars and restaurants in New York City can no longer discriminate against pregnant women by denying them alcohol.

According to new guidelines released earlier this month, refusing alcohol and foods considered risky for expectant mothers (think raw fish or soft cheese) is equivalent to discrimination under the city's Human Rights Law.

The new rules fit within a larger discussion about accommodating pregnant women in the workplace and elsewhere in public settings — entitlements that women's rights groups say are still lacking in many places.

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But if lacking accommodations for pregnant women are taken perhaps as more of a systemic shortfall, discriminating against them by refusing alcohol hits on a much more contentious idea: that pregnant women should be allowed to drink.

Many prominent health organizations, including the Surgeon General's Office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strongly discourage alcohol consumption for pregnant women, and, in the latter case, sexually active women not using birth control.

And in 18 states, according to a ProPublica report, substance abuse during pregnancy is considered child abuse. In some states, lawmakers have supported the arrest and incarceration of women who use drugs or alcohol while pregnant.

States that consider substance abuse child abuse

But women's rights groups say that these laws are part of a broader pattern of external forces exerting decision-making control over pregnant women.

"We are very concerned about what is an increasing trend to criminalize pregnant women's behavior," Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for Workplace Justice at the National Women's Law Center, told ATTN: in a phone call. "We think that it is an extremely disturbing manifestation of asserting control over a woman's decision and her body simply because she's pregnant."

Martin said the question of whether or not pregnant women should drink should be left up to the woman herself. In recent years, the subject has been a divisive topic of debate that has centered on cultural taboos, which critics say have overshadowed objective guidelines. A number of recent studies, for example, have shown moderate alcohol consumption in pregnant mothers to have no effect on their children.


Still, others say that we don't know enough about how much is too much, and that it's better to play it safe: Why risk causing any fetal alcohol spectrum disorders?

But whether or not that risk assessment should be up to a woman's server or bartender is another question altogether.

"Recognizing that women are the best decision makers about their health and the health of their fetus is what the New York City rule is about, and it addresses a problem of paternalism that has often limited women's opportunities in general, and pregnant women's opportunities in particular," Martin said.