Friday, April 13, 2018

Unnatural Categories: In Defense of Barnhill and Martucci

I read the controversial article that Dr. Anne Barnhill and Dr. Jessica Martucci wrote in  Pediatrics Perspectives, problematizing the use of the word "natural" in breastfeeding promotion campaigns, and while I think that they oversimplify the variety of reasons why people would be skeptical or resistant around adhereing current vaccination regimes, their core argument is an important one.

Barnhill and Martucci write:
It makes sense that breastfeeding promotion would make appeals to the 'natural.; The resurgence in breastfeeding rates over roughly the past 4 decades is rooted in a history of women’s organized efforts during the 1950s and 1960s to redeem the value of feeding babies 'naturally' in the face of widespread medical support for formula feeding. Coupling nature with motherhood, however, can inadvertently support biologically deterministic arguments about the roles of men and women in the family (for example, that women should be the primary caretakers of children). Referencing the “natural” in breastfeeding promotion, then, may inadvertently endorse a controversial set of values about family life and gender roles, which would be ethically inappropriate. Invoking the “natural” is also imprecise because it lacks a clear definition."
Their point is not that breastfeeding is not beneficial,  or shouldn't be promoted, but that in identifying it as "natural" and assigning a moral value to that category we identify mothers and families who can't breastfeed -- women and other mothers who don't lactate,  men  and other fathers who are raising babies together or on their own -- as "unnatural" in ways that skirt dangerously close to the rhetoric of Christian fundamentalists and Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists.    (If you aren't familiar with Judith Butler's questioning of the category of "natural woman" here is a taste -- http://magdor.tumblr.com/post/108754874029/when-aretha-franklin-sings-you-make-me-feel-like)

The problem with dismissing things as "unnatural" is that it quickly leads to dismissing people as "unnatural."  I am highly critical of the choices we in this culture make around technologies such as genetic engineering, petrochemical production, smartphones, and the methods of using and administering pharmaceuticals -- but I find that as soon as people move beyond the specifics of how the use of these technologies is impacting complex living systems and into the argument that they are "unnatural" they soon begin talking about the ways in which those technologies are allegedly responsible for the existence of monstrously unnatural people -- usually members of sexual and neurological minorities that have existed since the beginning of humanity and beyond. 

I am an animist -- I experience everything in the world as alive and conscious, and nothing as un-natural.  This includes things made by human technology.  I wish humans wouldn't dig up uranium and put it in nuclear reactors and produce plutonium -- but the plutonium humans produce is still part of the living world, just as much as Roses and Hummingbirds and waterfalls are, and only when we fully engage it can we begin to transform the systems that produce it and find ways to deal with the reality of its toxicity.

And sometimes the best and least disruptive interventions we can make to support someone's healing involve technologies and approaches we might otherwise be critical of which ultimately support the establishment of coherence and healthy flow in living systems in ways more efficient and less damaging than ostensibly more natural interventions.   As an herbalist, it is easier for me to support healthy tissue recovery after a surgery to remove a skin cancer than it is for me to do so after someone has applied a caustic "black salve."   Sometimes technologies we might otherwise be loathe to apply are the best means in a given situation to stabilize a person whose health is rapidly deteriorating so we can move forward with the real work of healing.

My teacher, Karina, repeated to me over and over again that "A witch works with all things"-- dismissing some of those things as "unnatural" can be an impediment to healing, magic. and justice.

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