Baby on Board, Drink in Hand

Dear Helena,

The other night I was in a bar and I saw this pregnant lady having a glass of wine with her friends. From the way she was acting (i.e., laughing hysterically), it may not have been her first. I know all about the risks of fetal alcohol syndrome, and I felt like going over there and asking her if she knew what she was doing to her baby. I tried to fix her with a disapproving stare but I guess she was partying too hard to notice. It’s difficult enough to stand by when someone is harming herself, but when she’s harming an unborn child, I feel one has a duty to intervene. But is there any way to do it that will make the woman listen, rather than just antagonize her? —Stick to Seltzer

Dear Stick to Seltzer,

Many people feel as you do about pregnant women drinking, as was evident in some of the responses to one of my past columns. Pregnant women who do imbibe often prefer to do it at home because of the stigma. Or they do as my pregnant sister-in-law does: She has a small glass of wine, usually with dinner, a couple of times a week, but if she’s at a restaurant she asks her husband to order it and leaves the drink sitting in front of him.

“When I go out to a restaurant, I might have half a glass of wine mixed with soda water,” says Danielle Peterson Searls, a San Francisco auction house business manager who is pregnant. “No one’s said anything.” Nor has she gotten any frosty looks.

But if you disapprove of such behavior, you can’t tell the woman in question to stop, any more than you can tell an obese person to put down her cream puff or a chain smoker to extinguish his cigarette. A pregnant woman, just like any other human being, has the right to make her own decisions about her health.

You argue that this is different because she’s harming someone else by her decision. But people disagree on whether it’s harmful for the baby if pregnant women enjoy the odd tipple after the first trimester. There’s no question that heavy drinking can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, but no one has proved that light drinking compromises the baby’s health. Many European women (including my mother) have enjoyed the odd glass of wine during pregnancy with no adverse effects. Several studies, such as this one, suggest this is OK.

In any case, as you intuited, intervening is unlikely to change the woman’s behavior. She’s probably weighed the pros and cons and decided she wants to have her glass of Chardonnay. Even if she has somehow failed to learn about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant, she probably won’t be very receptive to a lecture from a stranger.

It’s highly unlikely she’ll have more than one drink, let alone get sloshed. Duggan McDonnell of San Francisco’s Cantina says pregnant women come in about once a month, and they are always extremely conservative in their alcohol intake. “Generally it’s wine, usually white wine. They’ll definitely take a sip of their partner’s or friend’s drinks. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pregnant woman order a margarita.”

If a pregnant woman does start pounding shots, a staff member can ask her to leave. As McDonnell points out, if the establishment has a sign posted saying it reserves the right to refuse service to anyone, the woman would not have a right to sue.

Next time you see someone drinking while pregnant, don’t give her the evil eye. It may help you to remember that the situation may not be as it appears. For all you know, that drink in her hand might be a mocktail and the reason she’s giggling uproariously is not her blood alcohol level but a girlfriend’s dirty joke. And unless her friends are trying to feel the baby kick, you can’t be certain whether the woman really is expecting or just trying to hide her extra pounds with a smock. Assuming an overweight person is pregnant is a faux pas from which there is no graceful escape.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.