Monday, May 28, 2007
Pregnancy and Vice
The direct costs and benefits of traditional vices, almost by definition, fall almost entirely upon the vice practitioner him or her self. (This is one of the most important features that distinguish, say, a drug addict from a thief.) A drinker enjoys the intoxication and suffers the hangover, a gambler risks her own money and reaps the (usually negative) reward. But there are exceptions, two of the most common being the harms that second-hand tobacco smoke can cause to proximate non-smokers and the harms that some drugs can bring to the fetuses of pregnant women. (Less-than-direct effects, such as those that arise from drunk driving, also fall upon folks other than the vice consumers or producers.) These direct harms to others from vice involvement, not surprisingly, can lead to both government regulations and social disapproval.
Zoe Williams, a now-pregnant columnist for the Guardian, looks at some of the advice that both the British government and others provide to expectant moms about various hazardous behaviors -- including alcohol and caffeine consumption. The government last week altered its alcohol advice to pregnant women, from a regime of very moderate consumption to one of total abstinence. This change occurred in the absence of any new scientific information concerning the effects of alcohol on fetuses. But as Williams notes, limited, non-binge consumption of alcohol does not really seem to pose any risks, and of course, moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy was common both in the previous generation and throughout human history. Modest caffeine consumption also appears to be safe for babies, but some people (including medical professionals) urge pregnant women to give up caffeinated coffee and even chocolate bars, which contain fairly low doses of caffeine. Williams distrusts much of this advice:
Despite having got yourself into a spot of bother, pregnant women, you are still in the possession of adult judgment, and you are still allowed to use it. If the official advice sounds stringent to the point of insanity, examine it more closely - you aren't just a selfish person, looking for loopholes for your own sorry enjoyment.