PBS: The story about drinking while pregnant that got our newsroom talking

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On PBS NewsHour, National Correspondent Amna Nawaz reports from Minnesota on a subject often referred to as the “invisible disability:” Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD, which can occur when a mother drinks during pregnancy. Symptoms, which include impulse control, hyperactivity and short attention span, can look a lot like ADHD, and a recent study shows that as much as 5 percent of the U.S. population could be affected. This means it could be more common than autism. Many children with FASD go through multiple misdiagnoses and many don’t ever get diagnosed.

Here Nawaz joins producer Lorna Baldwin and Dr. Amber Robins, a NewsHour medical fellow, to discuss the reporting that went into the piece and the people they met living with the disorder.


From: Amna Nawaz
Sent: Monday, July 23, 2018 12:19 PM
To: Lorna Baldwin; Amber Robins
Subject: Reporting the FASD story

I’ll be honest, when we first launched on this story, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder was not something I knew much about. I went through two pregnancies and deliveries in the last five years. The journalist in me read and studied aaalllll the information I could during that time. Or so I thought. How did I not know more about something as serious as FASD? How many other women out there were in the same boat?

That’s why it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that awareness is still – 45 years after FASD was first defined– one of the biggest challenges for advocates. That most women aren’t aware that we have no idea how much or how little alcohol can cause FASD. That, yes, a glass of wine every now and again in your third trimester might be totally fine, or it might cause irreparable brain damage in your baby. And that it all rides on a complicated matrix of chemistry and genetics and neurobiology that the science has not yet figured out (because how many pregnant women would volunteer as subjects in that study?)

I know of more friends than I can count who had a drink every now and again during their pregnancies. During my own third trimesters, I drank an occasional glass of wine. Reporting this story, it broke my heart to hear mothers share the guilt and shame they felt talking openly about their alcohol consumption. And while I was baffled to learn what we don’t yet know about FASD, I was also deeply disturbed by everything we do.


From: Lorna Baldwin
Sent: Monday, July 23, 2018 12:50 PM
To: Amna Nawaz; Amber Robins
Subject: Re: Reporting the FASD story

Amna, you’re not alone. Disturbed, baffled and surprised are all words that describe what went through my head when this assignment came my way too. As we dove into the research phase, and made calls to experts, I kept coming back to the same question — why isn’t there more known about FASD? And why does a 100 percent preventable disorder afflict so many people? The answer, as we found out, is complicated.

When I rather unscientifically polled friends and family members to see what they knew, it was very little. And more than one person said their doctor told them a drink now and then while pregnant was “no big deal.” That flies in the face of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines, which we looked up dating back to September 1986: no amount of alcohol use is safe during pregnancy. And that led to a question I kept asking Amber – why is it that some doctors are giving women advice that doesn’t mesh with the professional guidelines? Again, we found out, the answer is complicated.

Read more of their learnings here

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