skepticism and women

Parenting and the False Dichotomy Between Nature and Technology

NB: The quote is actually from ‘Christiane Northrup MD’, more about her in ‘Further Reading’. The Facebook page I saw the above image on was not the one mentioned in the bottom left hand corner.

A couple of months ago, I happened upon this quote posted by a breastfeeding support and advocacy page on Facebook. As a new mother, I visited many such pages while I navigated my way through learning to breastfeed, alongside other pages and communities relating to various aspects of parenting infants.

The text in the above image demonstrates an ideology that I see expressed often in the realm of online parenting information; the simplistic appeal to nature and subsequent derision of technology.

I’ll quickly state that I do not dispute that breast milk is an ideal food for babies*. I’m not quite willing to call this part of the quote out as being a straw man argument, but it is very rare in my experience to see the claim made that formula is as good as breast milk. As such, I’m not quite sure who or what the quote is intended to be in response to. Perhaps this would be more evident if the quote was not taken out of context, but for the purposes of this article, I think it appropriate to leave it as the short excerpt that has been used to create this meme.

What I wish to focus on in this post is the notion suggested in the second part of the last sentence. On reading it, my immediate response is to declare that yes, sometimes relatively new human innovations are superior to the products of several million years of evolution.

The poliomyelitis virus is the product of three million years of evolution. Relative newcomers, the range of polio vaccines that have been developed over the past fifty years have fortunately proven to be superior to the poliomyelitis virus. As a result, we are now on the verge of eradicating polio.

Snakes are evolutionary success stories and populate every continent aside from Antarctica. The administration of antivenom, a medical technology, allows us a greater chance at surviving their bites.

Some of the high risk events associated with childbirth – uterine rupture, cord accidents and other complications with delivery, post partum haemorrhage – are natural. Modern obstetric medicine with its comparatively new technologies is able to intervene when required and save the lives of both infants and their mothers.

In some developing nations, a varied diet is unaffordable and people rely on easy to grow rice to make up the larger part of their sustenance. To help combat morbidity and mortality caused by nutrient deficiencies, the humanitarian Golden Rice Project have created a genetically modified variety of rice which accumulates bioavailable beta carotine in its grains. Golden Rice is still in the development phase, the eventual goal is to distribute seed to farmers free of royalties, which they will be able to grow as they do traditional rice varieties, saving and replanting seed.

I hope the above examples not only illustrate that those things which are considered to be natural are not always the safest or most beneficial for us, but in the case of the latter two, that the natural can work in conjunction with technology to offer optimal outcomes.

My concern with separating out that which is considered ‘natural’ and that which is considered to be a product or tool of technology is the risk that we turn our backs on the safest or most beneficial choices in order to maintain an idealisation of the natural that is not always reasonable. The appeal to nature argument is used to sell many products and ideas, from harmless natural baby toiletries and foods to dangerous concepts such as rejecting vaccination and using homeopathic treatments in lieu of seeking legitimate medical care.

Automatically equating ‘natural’ with ‘safe’ is a presumption we must be mindful of. Likewise, whether we consider a concept or product to be natural should hopefully be of less relevance than whether it is the safest and most effective option.

I would like to suggest an alternative means by which we can claim our power as women (or, indeed, as parents and human beings in general). We can equip ourselves with a greater range of useful tools in our lives if we assess individual concepts and products on their own merit, rather than pigeonholing them as natural or otherwise. If we reject the notion that nature and technology are diametrically opposing notions, we can embrace both and make use of all available resources to facilitate the best possible wellbeing for ourselves and our loved ones.

Further Reading:

Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs – by Harriet Hall MD on Science Based Medicine

An Open Letter to My Fellow “Natural Parents” – by Madonna Behen on Redbook

The Golden Rice Project

* I don’t think that I am able to make this post citing such a highly emotive example without making a short statement on my position on the breastfeeding/formula feeding issue. As somebody who wanted to breastfeed my kids, I have been fortunate and tenacious enough to have succeeded – my son self-weaned at seventeen months and my daughter is still at it at the time of posting. The accepted consensus is that breast is best; I’m down with that and happily support any woman who wishes to breastfeed their child. However, if a woman chooses to formula feed, it’s her business, just as choosing to breastfeed is mine. If a woman is unable to breastfeed and wished to, I acknowledge her efforts, am sorry that things didn’t work out as she’d wanted and hope that she is feeling okay.

It is possible to advocate breastfeeding without being critical of those who formula feed. I’ve seen some awful attempts to guilt-trip women who formula feed and I do not understand what these critics are trying to accomplish. There’s no shortage of pro-breastfeeding information out there, it is unlikely that a woman who is already formula feeding their baby needs educating about the advantages of breast milk, nor is it common for women to attempt to re-induce lactation. I would ask those who make negative statements about formula feeding to question how constructive they are being. Which is of more use, a shamed, ostracised or hostile mother or a mother who feels supported and not judged?

Additionally, I acknowledge that a baby’s nourishment can be almost all-encompassing during their first year of life, but within the context of an entire childhood, it is a relatively small factor compared with whether the child is loved, supported, able to develop and express their identity and safe.