When the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Department of Mental Health and Substance Use published the first draft of its Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030 last week, a single clause in the 37-page document drew heavy criticism.
In it, the WHO appeared to be advocating that women of childbearing age should not be allowed to drink alcohol. At all. Regardless of whether they were, or intended to become, pregnant.
Specifically, the document stated, ‘appropriate attention should be given to… prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age…’ (p.17)
Of course, had the line simply read, ‘prevention of drinking among pregnant women,’ it’s unlikely that anybody would have batted an eyelid. But the suggestion that all women who are capable of becoming pregnant should be prevented from drinking alcohol is, not only offensive, it has potentially damaging ramifications.
The idea that a woman who is not pregnant should be forbidden from engaging in an activity open to the rest of the population purely on the off-chance she falls pregnant is, in the first instance, discriminatory. Worse is the implication: that women of childbearing age are primarily reproductive vessels, seen as secondary in their rights and life choices to a hypothetical foetus.
Half a sentence in an obscure draft may not seem like much. And perhaps the authors ‘misspoke’, focused, as they must have been, on their task of reducing the morbidity associated with excessive alcohol consumption. It’s unlikely that they intended to impair the bodily autonomy of several billion people.
But even if it were a mistake, this is really not a time to playing fast and loose with the language of human rights. A woman’s right to decide what to do with her body is under threat. Last month, the Governor of Texas signed into law a bill that not only prohibits abortions after as little as six weeks (before some women even know they’re pregnant), but has the potential to allow private citizens to sue abortion providers. In Poland, a member of the EU, a near-total ban on abortion is being enforced. As many of the report’s critics pointed out, the statement was reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s (mercifully-still-fictional) Gilead.
It is worthy of note that the beginning of the draft action plan does offer a disclaimer: ‘The information in this document does not necessarily represent the stated views or policies of the World Health Organization. The responsibility for the interpretation and use of the material lies with the reader’.
Yet it’s not difficult to imagine how hard-line conservatives and the pro-life contingent would interpret it.
Let’s remember that the action plan is still in its draft form, and following this furore, I would be extremely surprised to see the offending clause appear in the final draft. However, it has been a useful reminder that we cannot afford to be sloppy in how we express issues of human rights. By doing so, we play into the hands of those who believe exactly what the WHO has suggested (deliberately or otherwise) – that a woman’s exclusive purpose is to produce offspring.
Just in case the WHO is still considering including the clause, you can voice your objections at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Weigh in! What are your thoughts on the WHO’s report? How can we ensure that authoritative organisations with health mandates consider their social responsibilities?