Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the Canadian media: Key stakeholder perspectives on diagnosis, stereotypes, and discourse

Research team

John Aspler (Pragmatic Health Ethics Research Unit, McGill University); Eric Racine, PhD (Pragmatic Health Ethics Research Unit, Université de Montréal, McGill University); Natalie Zizzo, MSc (Pragmatic Health Ethics Research Unit, at the time of the study); Emily Bell, PhD (Pragmatic Health Ethics Research Unit, at the time of the study); Nina Di Pietro, PhD (Douglas College); James Reynolds, PhD (Queen’s University)


Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR); Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQ-S); Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN)


FASD, a complex diagnosis covering a wide range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, results from a fetus’ exposure to alcohol in the womb. Most Canadians know that FASD exists and that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm a fetus, but are less informed about how FASD manifests and how it impacts the lives of individuals and their families. Given this gap in knowledge, the media, a common source of information, could play a key role in shaping the way the public understands FASD. In addition, incomplete or insensitive portrayals could provoke unintended consequences, including the generation or perpetuation of stigma toward individuals with FASD, as well as women who drink while pregnant (who face stigma given the connection between drinking alcohol and FASD outcomes).

To inform evidence-based strategies that could positively influence public dialogue about FASD, we undertook a project to analyze Canadian media discourse about FASD, alcohol, and pregnancy, as well as to discuss our findings with key FASD stakeholders: 1) adults with FASD; 2) parents of people with FASD; and 3) healthcare professionals with experience caring for people with FASD and their families. This study explored participant experiences with FASD diagnosis, with stereotypes associated with FASD and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, as well as their reflections on news media coverage.


Aspler J, Zizzo N, Di Pietro N, & Racine E. (2018). Stereotyping and stigmatising disability: A content analysis of Canadian print news media about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. 7(3), 89-121.

Zizzo, N., & Racine, E. (2017). Ethical challenges in FASD prevention: Scientific uncertainty, stigma, and respect for women’s autonomy. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 108(4).

Bell, E., Andrew, G., Di Pietro, N., Chudley, A. E., Reynolds, J. N., & Racine, E. (2016). It’s a shame! Stigma against Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: Examining the ethical implications for public health practices and policies. Public Health Ethics, 9(1), 65–77.

Zizzo, N., Di Pietro, N., Green, C., Reynolds, J., Bell, E., & Racine, E. (2013). Comments and reflections on ethics in screening for biomarkers of prenatal alcohol exposure. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 37(9), 1451-1455.