'Natural' Parenting...What Exactly Do We Mean By That?

Natural isn’t necessarily good. That should go without saying. It’s perfectly natural to be mauled by a predator. But we wouldn’t prescribe it.

Yet much of the marketing we see makes use of the word “natural” to imply healthiness. Writing for Slate, author Elissa Strauss claims that as a serious problem.

Public health advocates often use the phrase natural in their attempts to promote breast-feeding. As a marketing strategy, it’s a shrewd move. Most mothers will feel at least a little bit guilty about going the “unnatural” route and will be too tired to question the speciousness of what’s being implied. But as a public health strategy, this use of natural may not be a very wise move at all.

In a new paper recently published in Pediatrics, bioethicists Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill argue that the emphasis on the “natural” aspects of breast-feeding can easily backfire. By endorsing breast-feeding as natural, they say, breast-feeding advocates are reinforcing the idea that natural is A) something that actually exists and B) healthier. By setting up this dichotomy, these pro–breast-feeding campaigns might serve as unintentional fodder for concerns against “unnatural” interventions like vaccinations.

“The idea of the ‘natural’ evokes a sense of purity, goodness, and harmlessness,” Martucci and Barnhill write. “Meanwhile, synthetic substances, products, and technologies mass produced by industry (notably, vaccines) are seen as ‘unnatural’ and often arouse suspicion and distrust. Part of this value system is the perception that what’s natural is safer, healthier, and less risky.”

So far, so good. Indeed, a danger exists in assuming that “natural” means pure, good, and harmless. Arsenic is natural, but you shouldn’t ingest it.

Then Strauss takes a left turn. From observing that the word “natural” is often abused, she makes the errant extrapolation that we ought to do away with our concept of nature altogether.

Martucci and Barnhill also point out that to describe breast-feeding as natural is to make a number of assumptions about gender roles and family life. Are two gay dads raising their child unnaturally if they formula-feed? What about a family who adopts? Or a mom who can’t or doesn’t want to breast-feed? Surely, these are all environments in which a baby could thrive.

In a recent paper from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent ethics organization based in the U.K., the authors consider how mushy a category “natural” is and whether it’s time to get rid of it.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up. Let’s not pretend that nature isn’t an actual thing, or that it holds no actual value.

“Are two gay dads raising their child unnaturally if they-formula-feed?” The real question is whether two gay men raising a child is natural, and that’s what Strauss, Martucci, and Barnhill are driving at here. We shouldn’t distinguish between natural or unnatural, they say, because that devalues people and their relationships.

But does it? If we care about objective reality at all, then there is no denying that two gay men cannot come by a child naturally. One or the other may come by a child through another union, with a woman, naturally. But the two of them aren’t going to produce a child together. That’s factual. It doesn’t devalue them as individuals or cast some pale over their relationship. It’s just true.

But so what? Let’s say two gay men are raising a child acquired through a previous relationship or through adoption. Wasn’t it thus acquired naturally? Guaranteed, that child didn’t hatch from a space egg or come forth from a crag in the ground. It may not be natural for two men to conceive and bear a child. But it’s obviously within the realm of nature for them to raise one, just as its within the realm of nature for one parent to raise a child alone, or for grandparents or godparents or other guardians to do the same.

In any case, if parents want their child to live, they should probably feed it. Given the mutual inability of two gay men to produce breast milk, formula seems a perfectly natural way to go.

Nature isn’t just about how things exist absent action. It’s also about how things act. A rock is inert. A plant grows, reaching up toward the sun and down toward water. An animal hunts or gathers, winters and breeds. A human applies his or her reason to the pursuit of life-affirming values. It can therefore be truthfully said that it’s as natural for a parent to feed his or her child with formula as it is to breastfed. Either action takes place within the context of human nature. Unnatural would be letting a child starve on account of having no breast milk available.

That’s the real way to fight against the commercial abuse of the term “natural.” The answer isn’t ignoring the concept of nature, but expanding it to include all which it properly should. Vaccines may not be found in nature. But they are produced naturally as a result of human beings doing what human beings do. We take what we find and reshape it toward a new purpose, all in the pursuit of a happier and more fulfilling life. It’s as natural to avoid arsenic, even though it is found in nature, as it is to take vaccines, even though they are not.


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