We Need to Stop Acting Like Nature and Medicine Are Enemies

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Girl at the doctor
Girl at the doctorPhoto: Natalie Young

A newly published paper suggests that when promoting the benefits of breast-feeding, health-care professionals should probably not describe it as “natural.

The paper, published this month in the journal Pediatrics, is titled “Unintended Consequences of Invoking the ‘Natural’ in Breastfeeding Promotion.” The unintended consequences? “This messaging plays into a powerful perspective that ‘natural’ approaches to health are better.” The authors note that many agencies, including the World Health Organization, the New York City Department of Health, and the California Department of Public Health — just to name a few — use wording such as “Mom-made” and “natural” in opposition to “factory made” and “synthetic” to describe breast-feeding.

What’s the problem with thinking “natural approaches to health are better,” one might ask. Aren’t they? Isn’t it better to give your infant “natural” breast milk than it is to give it “unnatural” formula”? To have a “natural childbirth” instead of an unnatural one with drugs or a surgical procedure? The dichotomy presented here seems fairly easy: Yes, all things being equal, let’s take the breast milk and the natural childbirth, of course! But previous research reviewed for this paper suggests that setting up this message — that “natural” is pure, good, and harmless, while synthetic, manmade technologies are “unnatural” — is both powerful and potentially harmful. And that can contribute to parents believing vaccines are unhealthy.

A separate study several months ago found that parents who fully vaccinate their children do so because they see vaccines as “routine,” while those who deviate from the vaccination schedule hold “multiple, sometimes contradictory positions,” partly because they are the kind of involved, self-educating consumers that medical professionals hope to encourage. In other words, they’re people who take the medical decisions of their families into their own hands. But in the case of the vaccine-suspicious, of course, the effect is the opposite of what doctors want. Sometimes, it seems, informed questioning and “engagement” in one’s family’s health can lead to what the researchers referred to as “Pinterest Thinking,” where consumers assemble or “curate” their medical belief system from a hodgepodge of found information, some of which can directly contradict other pieces of the system.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the failure to vaccinate can have really deadly consequences for children who rely on their parents and health-care providers to protect them. A 2-year-old girl in the U.K. died on Valentine’s Day of meningitis, and her mother is now using the girl’s story to campaign to get children fully vaccinated.

The desire for “natural” can quickly lead — as in the case of vaccine deniers — to assuming that “nature” and “modern medicine” are always at odds. A Canadian couple are currently on trial for the death of their toddler son in 2012 after they did not get medical help for his lung infection, which then developed into viral meningitis. Instead, they attempted treating him with maple syrup and ginger root. A cursory search of one parenting Facebook group found a thread discussing how this story — well documented over a series of years in Canadian and international media — is “not the whole story,” that the boy’s cause of death was not confirmed to be meningitis, and that a false story is being perpetrated by a “bunch of internet trolls.” The comments also link out to a blog, Modern Alternative Health, which “debunks” the death of the toddler (which definitely occurred). Whether his parents are culpable for his death is up to the Canadian legal system, but reports confirm that multiple people — including a family friend who was a nurse — told the parents that they believed the boy had meningitis.

In other words, many people believe that “medical intervention” happens where nature can do the job just as well. But the problem with nature is that left to its own, it often kills, and modern medicine is devoted to stopping nature from killing. Where our children are concerned, we have a legal duty to attend to their welfare, and focusing on a false dichotomy between “nature” and “medicine” helps no one.