Diagnosing moral disorder: The discovery and evolution of fetal alcohol syndrome

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The diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) was invented in 1973. This paper investigates the process by which a cluster of birth defects associated with exposure to alcohol in utero came to be a distinct medical diagnosis, focusing on the first ten years of the medical literature on FAS. Fetal alcohol syndrome was 'discovered' by a group of American dysmorphologists who published the first case reports and coined the term FAS. However, the nature of the diagnosis and its Salient symptoms were determined collectively over time by the medical profession as a whole. The paper traces the natural history of the diagnosis in the U.S. through five stages: introduction, confirmation and corroboration, dissent, expansion, and diffusion. FAS serves as an example of the social construction of clinical diagnosis; moral entrepreneurship plays a key role and the medical literature on FAS is infused with moral rhetoric, including passages from classical mythology, philosophy, and the Bible. FAS is a moral as well as a medical diagnosis, reflecting the broader cultural concerns of the era in which it was discovered, including a greater awareness of environmental threats to health, the development of fetal medicine, an emphasis on 'the perfect child,' and a growing paradigm of maternal-fetal conflict.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2025-2042
Number of pages18
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1998
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


  • Diagnosis
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Moral entrepreneurship


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