Is it dangerous to use the term natural? Paediatricians are now being advised to think so, particularly when it comes to describing breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is natural though, and while it is certainly not the only way to feed your baby, and not physically an option for some women, it is nevertheless, and I think inarguably, the most natural and healthy way to feed a baby, the way women have been doing it since the beginning of time. So where’s the danger in referring to breastfeeding in this way?
Science Struggling With Term ‘Natural’
A bioethical argument published in the journal Paediatrics is now advising paediatricians that it’s time to stop referring to breastfeeding as something that is ‘natural.’
A short essay published by authors Jessica Martucci, Ph.D, and Anne Barnhill, Ph.D., builds on a previous publication from the Nuffield Council in bioethics. This 109-page report attempts to classify and explain how the term ‘natural’ may affect an individual’s decision-making process when it comes to health care, as stated:
“Commenting, praising, or favouring something on the basis of it’s being natural, or criticizing, condemning or disapproving of something on the grounds that is unnatural connects the notion of what is natural with value.”
As a basis for their argument, the authors recommend the term ‘natural’ not be used by paediatricians who are encouraging new mothers to breastfeed. It is essentially the opposite of other breastfeeding initiatives from the American Academy of Paediatrics, as follows:
“Breastfeeding and human milk are the normative standards for infant feeding and nutrition. Given the documented short and long-term medical and neuro-developmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.”
It appears that the authors assume that public health initiatives should be built based on the assumption that individuals can’t tell the difference between what is natural or normal and what is healthy. The authors go on to propose:
“Promoting breastfeeding as ‘natural’ may be ethically problematic and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that ‘natural’ approaches are presumptively healthier. This may ultimately challenge public health’s aims in other contexts, particularly childhood vaccination.”
Ahhh… so now it makes sense. It seems they are worried that by calling breastfeeding natural and healthier for the infant, parents might assume that whatever is natural is healthier in all cases, and thus potentially opt out of vaccinating their children.
It’s also important to think about where Doctors are being advised from.
“The medical profession is being bought by the pharmaceutical industry, not only in terms of the practice of medicine, but also in terms of teaching and research. The academic institutions of this country are allowing themselves to be the paid agents of the pharmaceutical industry. I think it’s disgraceful.” – Arnold Seymour Relman (1923-2014), Harvard Professor of Medicine and Former Editor-in-Chief of the New England Medical Journal
This is a problem that’s well known in the medical community, which is why John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine published the most widely accessed article in the history of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) entitled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. In the report, he stated that most current published research findings are false.
How can we properly define ‘Natural’?
The correct definition of natural is “existing in or formed by nature.” As you can see, at no point is it implied that natural equals healthier. In many cases natural does not mean healthy, such as the addition of “natural flavourings” in many processed foods.
A few months after this initial article was published, Martucci wrote an essay that goes on to describe the severe backlash that she and her colleague experienced in response. Apparently, many people took offence to the article, particularly to assertions like the ones below:
“Studies have shown that parents who resist vaccination tend to inhabit networks of like-minded individuals with similar beliefs. These pockets of anti-vaccination sentiment tend to overlap with reliance on and interest and complementary and alternative medicine, skepticism of institutional authority, and a strong commitment and interest in health knowledge autonomy and healthy living practices.”
There are a few important points to bring up here. Firstly, there are a number of assumptions being presented that need to be questioned. Many parents are labelled “anti-vax” for simply choosing to delay the recommended vaccination schedule, or choose which ones their children receive. The statement seems to be aimed at those who choose to either not vaccinate or at least question the safety of vaccines. However unintentionally, though, it also shows that there is a massive shift in the way parents are thinking nowadays, and that they aren’t just taking what doctors tell them at face value.
The authors go on to compare breastfeeding to not vaccinating:
“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.”
Again the authors fail to note a few obvious flaws in their argument; breastfeeding has absolutely no associated risks and vaccines have many potentially harmful side effects, with countless studies to showcase this.
It is important to note that both authors are employed at the same institution as Dr. Paul Offit, the Director of the Vaccine Education Centre at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and a professor of vaccinology at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. It seems clear the paper was motivated by a vested interest in encouraging mothers to vaccinate their children.
You cannot compare something like breastfeeding to vaccines. Breastfeeding is natural, whether you like the term or not, and vaccines are unnatural — they are part of a man-made process that involves putting chemical additives into the human body.
Parents should have the right to choose, based on their own research, what they feel is right for their children, regardless of if breastfeeding continues to be defined as natural or not.