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Legal, moral, and ethical issues of serving pregnant women alcohol at bars

Patrons toast one another as a bartender serves drinks.
Patrons toast one another as a bartender serves drinks.
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Stop us if you’ve heard this one: a pregnant woman and a child walk into a dive bar in Brooklyn. Which of them does the bartender serve? If you answered neither, you’d be wrong.

New York City’s Commission on Human Rights has ruled that bartenders may not refuse to serve a pregnant woman alcohol because it would violate the city’s Human Rights Law. This guidance also applies to foods like raw fish or soft cheese, which are also considered risky.

A ProPublica study shows that at least 18 states have legislation that addresses substance abuse during pregnancy. California is not one of them, though ProPublica’s survey says the first known indictment of an American woman for using drugs during pregnancy happened in California in 1977. Tennessee is the only state in the U.S. that has a law allowing women who abuse substances during pregnancy to be charged criminally, if the baby is born dependent, but that law was only designed to last for a short period of time, and lawmakers there have voted to kill the law.

How much alcohol is safe during pregnancy? That depends who you ask.

Some medical organizations are on record as saying that even one drop of alcohol is too much during pregnancy. Yet many women say they enjoy an occasional glass of wine during pregnancy with no harmful outcomes to their babies.

Should bartenders be banned from refusing to serve pregnant women? What do you think about drinking during pregnancy? Should more cities and states adopt laws like the one in New York City?


Nina Martin, reporter at ProPublica covering gender and sexuality issues; she tweets @ByNinaMartin