DRINKING VIOLETS

Wollstonecraft BabychamLittle girls and ladies who’ve been through ‘The Change’ – presumably the two female demographics the manufacturers of alcoholic drinks should henceforth aggressively target. Women of ‘childbearing age’ are now apparently verboten, at least according to the ever-dependable World Health Organisation, so sales of the most prominent ‘lady drinks’ are destined to plummet unless the prepubescent and postmenopausal are encouraged to swarm into their local off-licence. That’s right – the WHO didn’t say ‘childbearing women’, but ‘women of childbearing age’. As girls are able to become pregnant once they start riding the menstrual cycle and can pretty much keep popping them out until they hit the menopause, that’s a pretty wide area to make an alcohol-free zone.

The World Health Organisation hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory over the past eighteen months, so the timing of this bizarre recommendation seems especially odd, particularly when it stands to reduce the WHO to an even more contemptible laughing stock than it already is. The response to the proclamation has been pretty universally derisive; the WHO was accused of paternalism and sexism, both of which seem fairly accurate accusations. The ongoing infantilisation of women has taken numerous fatuous forms over the last few years, often emanating from a position of seeking to protect the precious little shrinking violets from the malevolent male of the species. However, it sometimes feels like the Suffragettes never happened, so patronising and Victorian have many of the proposals been, and this latest laughable WHO advice is treating women like the archetypal ‘sickly child’ of the 19th century novel.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century author and thinker routinely (and rightly) cited as the Godmother of feminism, railed against the way in which young women continued to be treated as children both socially and legally in her landmark 1792 book, ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. Her passionate and groundbreaking work is an ideological foundation stone unearthed during each successive feminist wave, yet were she around today Wollstonecraft would see in this WHO recommendation precisely the same condescending tone women of her era were confronted by whenever they sought to assert any sort of independence as befitting a fully-grown adult. Amidst increased marginalisation by the loud, screeching voices of trans-activism and the capitulation of institutions, public bodies and the corporate world to this unhinged take on biology, women are now being informed that their childbearing years – essentially the prime years of their lives – should be years of teetotal temperance, presumably so they can perform their sole duty as breeding machines.

Almost 30 years ago now, a friend of mine who was a smoker didn’t pack in the habit during her first pregnancy; the baby was healthy when born and it appeared the impact of cigarettes on the womb was nonexistent. Around a decade or so later, a friend of a friend who also smoked when pregnant often spoke of the ‘dirty looks’ she received if lighting-up in public when carrying such a prominent bump. Move on another decade and-a-bit and it’s hard to imagine a woman having the nerve to grab a quick fag in private when with-child, let alone in public. My point is that smoking during pregnancy is now such a social black-mark against the mother-to-be that it has practically been outlawed. Drinking when pregnant doesn’t provoke quite the same horror in the observer, but it’s still regarded as ill-advised and reveals potentially bad parenting skills. The WHO proclamation unsurprisingly references this, recommending that ‘appropriate attention’ should be given to the prevention of drinking ‘among pregnant women’ – which is what you would expect them to say – but then adds the more contentious inclusion of ‘women of childbearing age’.

Christopher Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs didn’t mince his words. ‘This is classic World Health Organisation idiocy,’ he said. ‘Not content with repeatedly dropping the ball on Covid-19 and dishing out awards to politicians for banning vaping, it now thinks most of the world’s women should abstain from alcohol. The idea that it is unsafe for women of childbearing age to drink any alcohol is unscientific and absurd. Moreover, it is none of the WHO’s business.’ One wonders if any of the experts who put this WHO recommendation together are mothers of young children for whom a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day is such a vital shot of medicine that it should probably be available on prescription. Even the chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, whilst sticking to the ‘drinking when pregnant is bad’ narrative, was critical of the WHO advice. ‘Drinking alcohol in the early stages of pregnancy…can be very damaging for a foetus,’ said Dr Richard Piper before going on to add that it was ‘vital we balance this against each adult’s right to make informed decisions about what we do with our bodies, no matter our age or sex.’

Joining in the chorus of disapproval was the Portman Group, which regulates alcohol in Britain. ‘We are extremely concerned by the WHO calling on countries to prevent drinking among women of childbearing age in their latest action plan,’ said chief executive Matt Lambert. ‘As well as being sexist and paternalistic, and potentially restricting the freedoms of most women, it goes well beyond their remit and is not rooted in science. It is wrong to scaremonger in this irresponsible way and associate women’s alcohol-related risks with those of children and pregnant people.’ He could have done without saying pregnant ‘people’ – the word ‘women’ would have sufficed; but the fact even organisations like the Portman Group and Alcohol Change UK have reacted in such a manner perhaps shows what an own-goal this WHO ‘action plan’ really is.

A current storyline on ‘The Archers’ concerns the alcoholism of young mother Alice Aldridge; the character drank during pregnancy and the baby was born premature, thus enforcing the public health edict that drinking when pregnant can be damaging for one’s baby. Had the WHO’s ‘global alcohol action plan 2022-2030’ concentrated on that as well as the children and teenagers it also mentioned as the groups who should be dissuaded from hitting the bottle, few would’ve batted an eyelid. However, to include women alongside babies, kids and teens – regardless of whether or not they intend to have a family – seems to bracket women back in the same infantile limbo they occupied during Mary Wollstonecraft’s lifetime.

NHS advice on alcohol consumption is awash with the familiar language of ‘units’, recommending that not exceeding 14 of them a week is the act of a responsible drinker. Apparently, that translates as 10 glasses of wine (low-strength) or half-a-dozen pints of beer (average-strength). A recent study revealed binge-drinking remains an issue for one in three adults; despite regular claims that today’s adolescents spurn the practice in comparison to their predecessors of 10-20 years ago, it would seem the grownups still like a binge – particularly those at extreme opposites when it comes to incomes. ‘Highly-educated women’, AKA the middle-class Alice Aldridge types, are also cited as being most at risk. Were the World Health Organisation not possessed by the same crusading moralistic zealousness that appears to afflict every institution with a remit for improving public health, maybe people could actually be persuaded to alter their more unhealthy habits; as it is, by overreaching this remit and extending even further into the private sphere, any sensible suggestions are lost amidst the anger and derision this latest WHO missive deserves.

© The Editor