A sobering take on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome awareness campaigns

By Pieter Bredenkamp & Nicola Jearey-Graham


“1 in 10 South African babies are born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). What if unborn children could warn their mothers about the dangers of drinking while pregnant? Because not even one drink is worth a lifetime of suffering.” This is the premise of a recent social marketing campaign featured on the website of a leading South African brewer. The campaign includes a video intended to increase awareness of the effects of alcohol on the developing foetus and urges pregnant women to act responsibly.

The video, called the Sobering Stethoscope, shows expectant women placing a stethoscope on their abdomen to hear a pre-recorded child’s voice claiming to be ‘inside your tummy’. The woman hears the child’s plea to refrain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy. This Sobering Stethoscope video effectively represents the shortcomings of many interventions to alcohol-exposed pregnancies.

sobering stethoscope

The text accompanying the video states that foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are ‘100% preventable’ and that ‘responsible drinking is a positive choice we all have to make’. The message is clear and common in discussions surrounding the issue: women who drink during pregnancy choose to injure their children.

In reality, alcohol consumption is a core component of social life for many South Africans and refusing to partake often means being socially isolated. The campaign also fails to mention that patterns of alcohol consumption in South Africa are extremely detrimental, as the World Health Organisation has identified

While the campaign mentions the rate of unplanned pregnancies, it does not acknowledge that for many South African women reproductive choices, such as condom use, are often unavailable or denied by their partners. South African women die at the hands of intimate partners at a rate 6 times the global average¹, and research in the Eastern Cape province has shown that women experiencing intimate abuse are more likely to drink at harmful levels during pregnancy.² Unsurprisingly, alcohol consumption is related to the perpetration of interpersonal violence.

Instead, the Sobering Stethoscope campaign states that ‘women expecting should take a stand against social pressures from boyfriends, husbands, friends who say it’s okay [to drink]. It is not okay!’ Coping with the context of widespread alcohol abuse is thus made the sole responsibility of pregnant women.

Rather than making women individually responsible, we suggest that those who wish to raise awareness of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders consider underlying causes of drinking during pregnancy.

These include the availability of alcohol, the widespread culture of binge drinking (which causes the most foetal harm, especially in the early stages of pregnancy), and the great stress that pregnant women are often under (such as poverty and partner difficulties).


¹ Abrahams, N., Jewkes, R., Martin, L. J., Mathews, S., Vetten, L., & Lombard, C. (2009). Mortality of women from intimate partner violence in South Africa: A national epidemiological study. Violence and victims, 24(4), 546.

² Eaton, L. A., Kalichman, S. C., Sikkema, K. J., Skinner, D., Watt, M. H., Pieterse, D., & Pitpitan, E. V. (2012). Pregnancy, alcohol intake, and intimate partner violence among men and women attending drinking establishments in a Cape Town, South Africa township. Journal of Community Health, 37(1), 208-16.

³ WHO (2011). Global status report on alcohol and health. Geneva: World Health

Pieter Bredenkamp is completing his Masters in the Critical Studies inPieter Bredenkamp Sexualities and Reproduction research programme (Rhodes University, South Africa). He is working on a project focused on alcohol use during pregnancy. His research quantitatively analyses of pregnant women’s reported drinking patterns and factors associated with risky drinking. His previous research focused on attitudes toward sexual violence. Pieter also works with a non-government organisation focused on HIV counselling and testing.

Nicola Jeary-Graham is a doctoral candidate in the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproductions Nicola-Jearey-GrahamWR.jpgresearch programme (Rhodes University, South Africa). She is part of a project examining alcohol use during pregnancy. Her formative evaluation of a pilot project run by the NGO FASfacts uses Foucauldian Discourse Analysis and Conversation Analysis. Nicola’s previous research in the CSSR programme was in the area of sexuality education. Nicola is also a registered Counselling Psychologist and runs a private practice.

This piece originally appeared on the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction web page and was reprinted with permission.

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