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Module 1: Historic Perspectives on Alcohol and Pregnancy

Modern Times

Studies on alcohol and pregnancy

For at least 100 years physicians have known that alcohol crosses the placenta. But they thought it was safe. Many believed children of alcoholics had defects related to poor genetic stock rather than to alcohol exposure. That was the conclusion in a 1946 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association.4

French researchers began to study alcohol and pregnancy in the 1950s. An unpublished thesis reported the prenatal effects of alcohol on children born to alcoholic parents. In 1968, Dr. Paul Lemoine published a study of 127 children from 69 French families.5 Twenty-five children had distinct features related to prenatal alcohol exposure. Dr. Lemoine called this alcoholic embryopathy.

Term FAS first used

A few years later, Christy Ulleland, a pediatric resident in Seattle, became interested in babies with failure to thrive. She noticed that many had alcoholic mothers. In reviewing delivery records, she found more babies that fit the pattern. Her colleagues, Drs. David Smith and Kenneth Jones, asked to have all the children examined at one time.

In 1973, Jones and Smith identified a specific pattern of malformations, growth deficiencies, and central nervous system defects in 10 children of alcoholic mothers. They published their findings and labeled the condition fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).6 Similar findings were found in Germany, France, and Sweden.7-9 As a result, FAS prevention programs were developed in the late 1970s.10

Government Warning: (1) According to the Surgeon General women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.

Ann Streissguth, a colleague of Jones and Smith, organized the first international FAS conference in 1980. About 25 people from 13 countries participated. In 1981, the Surgeon General recommended warnings against alcohol use during pregnancy. Congress passed the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act in 1988, which required alcoholic beverage labels to carry a warning about birth defects.

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