Kathy Mitchell became pregnant with her daughter Karli when she was 17 years old. She drank regularly throughout her pregnancy, consuming a bottle of wine or several glasses of beer on most weekends. Mitchell was an alcoholic, and had been since adolescence, but she also was oblivious to the fact that drinking could be damaging to a fetus. In an emotional interview with the Washington Post, Mitchell recalled that conventional wisdom at that time dictated, “If you want to have a big fat baby, drink a beer a day.” And so Karli came into the world with a severe case of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Now 43 years old, she has the cognitive functioning of a first grader.
Karli was born in 1973, the same year researchers at the University of Washington Medical School published a landmark study stating that alcohol kills or damages developing cells. They coined the phrase “fetal alcohol syndrome” to describe the range of adverse symptoms that can result from a mother’s drinking during pregnancy. The condition, now known as “fetal alcohol spectrum disorder” (FASD) can cause impaired growth, intellectual disabilities, behavioral issues like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, vision problems and language delays.
Residing with her mother and stepfather, Karli leads a happy, but limited life. She collects dolls, and loves Hello Kitty stickers. She can follow only one rule at a time, and cannot comprehend sequences. Karli does not recognize social cues, and is easily manipulated. It took many years for Mitchell to learn the cause of her daughter’s developmental delays, because few doctors are trained to diagnose the disorder. When Karli was diagnosed by a team of specialists at the age of 16, Mitchell’s world fell apart. “I thought I would die from the grief and guilt,” she says. “It was one of the worst days of my life, and at that moment I knew that I had to do what I could to prevent this from happening to another child.”
Today, Mitchell is the vice president the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which strives to increase awareness of the risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Recent studies suggest that between two and five percent of all babies born in the United States have some degree of FASD. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no safe limit of alcohol consumption during any trimester of pregnancy.
Read the full story at The Washington Post.