#FeministFriday — Feminism and the Naturalistic Fallacy | Vol. 2 / No. 35.2

What does "natural" mean, anyway? Photo:Flickr user irrational_cat, CC BY-SA 2.0
What does “natural” mean, anyway? Photo:Flickr user irrational_cat, CC BY-SA 2.0

In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Elle talks about the “naturalism” movement within feminism, and why it’s really not very feminist at all.


When I was a young feminist in the heady days of my undergraduate youth (I was so wild I sometimes waited a day or two to do my homework. That’s how wild I was.) my campus feminist group put on a showing of Ricki Lake’s documentary, The Business of Being Born. To be completely honest, I wasn’t very gung-ho about it. I understand childbirth to be a gigantic issue for women’s rights, and for women in general. I just personally (though metaphorically) have a giant neon “No Admittance” sign hanging in my uterus, and ever since I took a physical anthropology class and saw this diagram of the relative size of babies’ heads and mothers’ birth canals, the mention of childbirth makes me instinctively cross my legs and wince. (You’ll notice that in humans, the black circle, aka the baby’s head, is bigger than the white circle, aka, the hole that babies are supposed to come out of. We did not necessarily help ourselves out by developing the whole “bipedal motion” thing.) I found parts of the film to bring up good points. For a long time, the rates of delivery via C-section had rocketed past the World Health Organization’s suggested rate of 10-15% and towards closer to 33%. While the rates are declining again, (perhaps partially as a result of efforts like Lake’s with the film) C-sections still account for about a third of all births in the US. At least part of that must be attributable to the rise of “vanity” C-sections and to doctors who want to get through as many deliveries as possible, and decide to skip all that unpredictable “pushing” business and go straight to a C-section. There are also questions to be raised, as they are in the film, about the way that many physicians don’t take the comfort of the mother into account when considering birthing positions or the use of drugs. But these valid points aside, most of the film left me with the feeling that I really, really wanted to have words with Ricki Lake.

Dana Stevens at Slate published a really good rundown of many of the problems with the movie when it first came out. There’s the fact that it makes some wildly unsubstantiated claims about the “harm” to the bond between a mother and child when a baby is delivered via C-section, because there is supposedly some magical “love hormone” cocktail that these mothers miss out on (I was delivered via C-section, and I can assure you that my mother was plenty capable of loving me after my birth. Just probably not as much when I was crying, which was always, but I think that’s normal.) There’s also the fact that the film completely fails to address the way that many of the “at home” birthing methods that Lake suggests aren’t financially feasible for many women who don’t share Lake’s personal financial status.

Perhaps most importantly though, there’s the fact that the infant mortality rate for “at home” births is about double to triple what it is for hospital births, and even that figure may be low since there aren’t centralized statistics for the death rate in at-home births. There’s also the fact that very few midwives in the United States are Certified Nurse Midwives, aka trained nurses who also perform at-home births. Instead the majority of midwives are Certified Professional Midwives, who do have some midwifery training but don’t have a nursing certification and don’t carry any form of liability insurance for the cases when something goes wrong.

And lots of things can go wrong—even the documentary’s director, who spends the film planning to have a home birth, has to be rushed to the hospital when there are complications. Though she is able to give birth to a healthy child, many other couples aren’t so lucky, and home births that turn south can result in injury, brain damage, and death for the child. This isn’t to say that home births, when performed correctly and safely, cannot be healthy and fulfilling experiences for women and their families. But there are serious risks inherent to home births that were never acknowledged when the voice of Tracy Turnblad was informing me of how beautiful and wonderful it was to “naturally” push the human equivalent of a Butterball turkey through my vagina while sitting in a kiddie pool and not taking any pain-relieving drugs.

It’s important to keep Ricki Lake’s past history as an advocate of “natural” fertility and childbirth in mind when you learn about her newest documentary project: Sweetening the Pill, based on Holly Grigg-Spall’s book by the same name that attempts to claim that hormonal birth control is not only dangerous but also sexist. Yes. Apparently the ability for a woman to control her own fertility is sexist. Let’s trip further down this rabbit hole, shall we?

Again, a Slate writer, Lindsay Beyerstein, does an excellent job of ripping apart Grigg-Spall’s faux feminism. Beyerstein’s best passages are worth repeating:

Holly Grigg-Spall offers what she calls a “feminist critique” of hormonal contraception. She argues that the so-called liberating force of the pill has been illusory. She claims that the pill keeps women in the thrall of patriarchal capitalism and destroys their health in the process […]

It would be tempting to dismiss the author as an isolated crank, but she is part of a disturbing effort to reduce women to their biological functions in the name of feminism. Sexists have been trying to reduce women to incubators since time immemorial, but recently some self-proclaimed feminists have jumped on the bandwagon, arguing that true liberation means being left alone to experience feminine bodily functions like ovulation, childbirth, and breast-feeding in all their natural glory. To these “feminists,” tampons and epidurals are keeping women down. And now, the birth control pill is, too. 

Again, there are tiny, tiny kernels of rational concern in Grigg-Spall’s argument. There are some risks with birth control pills, most notably blood clots. But as Beyerstein points out, the risk of a blood clot during pregnancy is much higher, so if you’re feeling super cynical about things, you can decide when you want to have a blood clot: when you’re taking a pill, or when you’re having a baby. Womanhood comes with so many fun choices! Grigg-Spall also argues that the pill is somehow the result of a capitalist, patriarchal agenda to make women emotionally stable automaton workers who never miss a day due to their “natural” bodily fluctuations, and who remain open sexually. O…..kay…. At the heart of Grigg-Spall’s argument is the same kind of biological essentialism that is usually used against women—that our most important and unique feature is our ability to bleed and to become pregnant. As Beyerstein explains,

Sweetening the Pill offers an insultingly reductive account of what it means to be female: “If we shut down the essential biological center of femaleness, the primary sexual characteristics, then can we say that women on the pill are still ‘female’?” Grigg-Spall muses, casting ovulation as the sine qua non of femaleness. If so, postmenopausal women, pregnant women, girls, ovarian cancer survivors, and transwomen aren’t really female.

So in Grigg-Spall’s world, the only women who are really “women” are the ones who can bleed out of their vaginas. Cool story, Grigg-Spall. Tell me again about how you’re a feminist? Grigg-Spall is particularly appalled by people like myself, who use birth control pills in order to stop our periods, or to reduce the number of periods we have a year. Beyerstein explains that Grigg-Spall thinks that we are “victims of internalized misogyny who reject an authentic feminine identity rooted in ovulation.” There are some really important reasons that I have chosen to control the number of periods that I have a year, and they rhyme with “debilitating pain,” “ungodly amounts of blood,” and “propensity for ovarian cysts.” ….wait, no they don’t, those are the reasons. My rejection of my authentic feminine identity has apparently affected my ability to be flowery and poetic. Damn you, Big Pharma!

As Amanda Marcotte points out, at the heart of both The Business of Being Born and Sweetening the Pill is a blind, undying faith in the inherent superiority of what is “natural.” Home births are “natural,” and thus superior to hospital births. Bleeding for seven days without dying, using periods of abstinence to try and overcome your fertility or saying “screw it” and just constantly risking pregnancy, and succumbing to your womanly urges and hormones are “natural” and thus inherently better than taking birth control pills.

There are a couple of problems with that. The first is that the word “natural” means basically whatever we want it to mean, but it’s usually used in a context to judge another person or to feel superior about ourselves. Michael Pollan points out that sometimes “natural” is secret “I’m not a bigot, promise!”-code for words like “traditional,” as in “traditional marriage.” Sometimes it means something that has been untouched by man-made chemicals, like when we’re talking about “natural” snacks. Sometimes it’s about the simple lack of human intervention, as in “natural” death, when doctors make no medical attempt to revive a dying person (aka a Do Not Resuscitate order that sounds friendlier). In each case, there is something supposedly superior about what is natural. This is called the “naturalistic fallacy,” explained here by Pollan:

Implicit here is the idea that nature is a repository of abiding moral and ethical values — and that we can say with confidence exactly what those values are. Philosophers often call this the “naturalistic fallacy”: the idea that whatever is (in nature) is what ought to be (in human behavior).

But, as he points out, there is a whole lot of nature, and a lot of it contradicts other parts of nature. Some parts of nature are pretty and fluffy and wonderful, like bunnies in front of a rainbow. Some parts of nature are terrifying and bloody, like a fox ripping apart the bunny or the destruction caused by the thunderstorm that came right before that rainbow.

This is where the second really big problem with the emphasis on “natural” that Lake and Grigg-Speyer advocate comes in. Lots of things are “natural” that aren’t necessarily good for you, and that we probably shouldn’t be trying to hold up as pinnacles of morality or female behavior. The bubonic plague is “natural.” Dingoes, with their creepy door-opening-wrists-and-paws, are “natural.” That doesn’t make them good. Dying in childbirth is “natural.” Being unable to work or attend school because of your period and having no control over your own fertility are “natural.” These things are also very, very far from good.

By setting up the dichotomy “natural-good” vs. “unnatural-bad,” Lake and her cohorts are not only asking us to turn away from a couple thousand years of medical innovation and human advancement, they are asking women to reduce themselves, once again, to our biology. If we idolize fertility above everything else, then we return to a world where a woman’s mind was considered less important than her uterus.

And I’m not terribly eager to live in a world where that is considered “natural.”


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow.  When she’s not trying to explain why she’d rather have an unnatural pill than a natural birth, she studies gender in popular culture.