The Pill, the Rhythm Method, and Why “Nature” Isn’t An Argument
The naturalistic fallacy grates on my nerves more than many other logical fallacies, in a way that is no doubt due in part to having been a sickly child whose access to good health care through my dad’s government job benefits made life much more liveable, or hell, survivable. (Like many asthmatics, I grew up to basically grow out of the disease, and have been asymptomatic to the point where it doesn’t even show up on tests, but when I was a kid I was hospitalized twice for attacks and had to use daily inhalers to manage it.) The denialist movement against modern medicine is particularly grating on my nerves for this reason. I’m all for turning a critical eye on Big Pharma, but it has to be one rooted in the agenda of wanting people to have better modern medicine, not turning back the clock. Ben Goldacre is an excellent example of how to do it right.
Having encountered Holly Grigg-Spall’s bizarre anti-birth control pill campaign in various places online, I figured her new book was probably going to be more of the same half-baked, anti-science, reactionary politics-disguised-as-feminism stuff that she produces in blog posts, and according to this review by Lauren O’Neal—who tried a lot harder than I would have bothered to be open-minded about Grigg-Spall’s kind of “feminism” that would bully women into letting go of control over their own bodies—it’s more of the same, basically a long dive deep into the naturalistic fallacy. As usual with the naturalistic fallacy, there’s some serious comedy if you give some of the arguments a moment’s thought.
Here’s one example: “Hormonal contraceptives,” the book announces, “are ranked by the World Health Organization as a class one carcinogen alongside tobacco and asbestos.” This is true, but it’s presented deceptively. “Class 1” in this case means “known carcinogen,” not “especially harmful carcinogen.” “Alcoholic beverages” are on the list too, as are “salted fish (Chinese-style)” and “sunlight.” While the pill does raise users’ chances of getting breast cancer, the WHO—the very source being cited—says it does so “slightly,” whereas Grigg-Spall says “significantly.” The pill also decreases the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer, which she acknowledges but dismisses as comparatively unimportant.
Not just in the comedy of not knowing the difference between classifying scientific claims on the basis of the evidence supporting them vs. classifying them in terms of how severe the effect is, but also how there’s no pausing to consider that the WHO’s list of carcinogens definitely creates problems for people who believe that natural is better than “unnatural”, whatever that means. Sunlight is definitely natural, and much more carcinogenic than birth control pills, which is why wearing “unnatural” things like clothes, hats, and sunscreen when outside our “unnatural” houses is so important. Tobacco is also carcinogenic and natural, as are asbestos.
Of course, trying to parse the “natural” from the “unnatural” is a fool’s game, one reason the naturalistic fallacy should be immediately obvious as a fallacy. (The other reason, of course, is there is no reason to think that natural is better than unnatural, even if you can create meaningful categories between them.) Grigg-Spall presents the rhythm method as more natural than the birth control pill, but it can easily be argued that the behavior of monitoring cervical mucus and using technologies like calendars and thermometers is also “unnatural”. Indeed, one of the more irritating problems with the naturalistic fallacy is the tendency to assume that technologies become more “natural” with time, but there was a time before humans were using calendars and the thermometers and clocks used to chart your menstrual cycle are even newer inventions. This tendency to think that technology x time = natural shows how intellectually vapid the entire argument from nature really is.
Bizarrely, nothing is more natural than developing new technologies to make our lives easier, in the sense of “natural” meaning “inherent to humanity” or “hardwired”. Despite claims made by evolutionary psychologists that their critics oppose the idea that humans are evolved creatures, we clearly are, and one of the most secure claims you can make about that evolution is that we are prone to reacting to problems by creating technological solutions. Technology is so inherent to humanity that those who long for a more “natural” life basically have to redefine most technology we use as not-technology to even make their case. But both the e-reader and bound forms of Grigg-Spall’s book are a form of technology that is “unnatural” and literacy is as “unnatural” as hormone manipulation—you are changing your very body by learning to read and write, laying down your neural pathways differently than that of someone who didn’t engage in the technology of books and writing.
So that’s why the argument is illogical, but I also pointed out that it’s reactionary, and I mean it. The kinds of “feminism” that are hostile to medical interventions around female sexuality and reproduction, from pain relief during childbirth to contraceptive technologies, particularly those that emphasize ease and spontaneity like the pill* tend to drift towards a reactionary view of gender, where some kind of essential “womanness” that is rooted in self-sacrifice and suffering is not only held up as an ideal, but often is implied to be mandatory for a well-lived life. Menstruating is put above not-menstruating, childbirth over not-childbirth, and not using contraception over contraception. Needless to say, these kinds of attitudes are not only troubling in what is expected of women, but exclusionary, implying that transwomen, women who do not give birth easily, or women who are infertile or without uteruses are less than fully woman. It also tends to have an anti-sex and anti-pleasure bent.
So, with that, I point out that the specter of mandatory pregnancy is raised, according to O’Neal:
Even as I watched Grigg-Spall tunnel deeper and deeper into her appeal to nature, I assumed that we would end up on the same page. Even if the health risks were as grave as she claimed, surely she’d still have to recognize that women were often willing to brave those risks for the benefits, both personal and societal, of reliable family planning.
I was wrong. When Sweetening the Pill isn’t eliding those benefits completely, it’s hinting without much subtlety that the alternative isn’t so bad. “We have been led to see a pregnant teenager as inherently wrong, no matter what the circumstances,” Grigg-Spall writes, “…yet how do we decide what is an unwanted pregnancy and what is a ‘happy accident’?” If the alternative to “unnatural” interference with fertility is unwanted children, well—so be it. She allows that that’s an event “unsupported culturally and financially,” but waves that complication aside: “If pregnancy outside of the prescribed timeline does indeed cause destitution that is not the fault of the woman with the unwanted pregnancy but the fault of…society.” True enough, but I imagine a lack of culpability is cold comfort to a woman stuck working two full-time minimum-wage jobs for the rest of her life to support a child she wasn’t looking for in the first place.
Or hell, just for those of us who don’t want children, don’t want them now, or don’t want more because we have other priorities.
Then there’s the inevitable suggestion that making sex easier and more spontaneous could only really be for men:
Abstinence is preferable to the pill as well, and Grigg-Spall accuses feminists of “perpetuat[ing] pill use” with the idea that “women have to be sexually available” and “can’t, won’t, or don’t say no to sex.”
The claim that a woman who engages in sex, even easily, is now “available” for anyone who wants her is a reactionary claim. It’s in the same family as claiming that a short skirt is an invitation to rape, or that because you were flirting with a man, you rescind your right to not consent to sex. Sandy Rios, right wing nutbag, made a similar argument about abortion recently, that it was a plot constructed by men to get sex from women, who are presumed to be largely asexual and only have sex in order to get attention from men. The pill, like the condom or modern abortion techniques or short skirts, is a morally neutral technology. It means whatever the user says it means. Since the vast majority of pill users do not believe that swallowing a pill means they have to take all comers, I think that we can safely say that it does not mean that at all. Rush Limbaugh may believe the pill makes you a “slut”, but since when does he get to dictate shit about what other people believe?
*Grigg-Spall tries to make it seem like an enormous hassle to take a pill every day, but as O’Neal points out, it’s a lot less of a pain in the ass than charting your ovulation—plus shots and rings that Grigg-Spall objects to are even less of a hassle than the pill for many women.