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May 24, 2006

Natural is bunk

I just want to thank Amanda for writing this excellent post assailing bogus feminist arguments against period-skipping through hormonal contraception:

Okay, I’ve been trying to hold my tongue/keyboard on this, but the feminist discussion about birth control pills that you can use to skip periods is making me bananas. The problem isn’t discussing one’s feelings about it or anything like that, but I have a big, fat problem with the kneejerk assumption that “natural” is more valuable that “unnatural”. Every time someone praises menstruation as something that makes them feel like a woman or whatever, I wonder if they’re working for Tampax or something. [...] “Natural” is a bunk concept. People invoke it when they can’t make a substantial argument about the rightness of their case. [...]“Natural” isn’t an argument for shit. Invoking it should be verboten because it leads to hazy, confusing arguments like Rachel’s argument against birth control pills that stop bleeding altogether at Alas, a Blog. [...] Feminists should insist that all debates on women’s health care adhere to a strict cost/benefit analysis. Health is more important than some vague idea of what’s natural and it’s a lot easier to draw conclusions about what is and isn’t healthy than what is and isn’t natural. [Read the whole thing]

If you happen to enjoy menstruation, that's terrific. Knock yourself out. However, now that medical science has made it optional, bleeding should be considered a hobby, as opposed to a feminist issue. Joking aside, these are very personal decisions that every woman should make in consultation with her doctor, based on her preferences and her physiology.

I just don't think feminism has much to say one way or the other, except to cheer for personal choice, privacy, and the scientific research that gave us these options.


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Hear hear! I'm seriously considering switching. Screw your period. Some people were worried that women are doing this for male convenience vis a vis sex and my first thought was that women aren't exactly overjoyed to have to bust out the towel and pray you don't screw up the sheets just because you're horny. The semen vs. blood argument therefore strikes me as a little loaded, but fuck it, I'll be the first to say it. Semen's not as problematic as blood, cause it's a lot easier to wash out of stuff.

No kidding! Being pregnant once every year or so is probably more "natural" than bleeding every 28 days. I don't hear anyone arguing for that (unless it's what the woman wants)! Other "natural" things include no pants and shitting in the woods.

I think I detect, among the pro-period crowd, a bit of fetishizing of the period as some kind of signifier of true womanhood. But that's just goofy; what would they say to a woman who'd had a hysterectomy.

Jesus bled for your sins; surely the womenfolk can bleed for Jesus.

I presume that every thread on this topic must have an obligatory reference to Connie Willis's story "Even the Queen". My contribution will be to point out that it is, in fact, available">">available online.

Well, as a guy I'm lucky enough to be spared periods, so no one needs my opinion on that, but I want to ludly applaud Amanda's point that "natural is a bunk concept." it's not only bunk, it's pernicious bunk, used to justify all kinds of lazy thinking. I probably find it extra-annoying because people who I generally agree with on alot of things tend to fall back on it way too often.

I don't hear anyone arguing for that (unless it's what the woman wants)!

I do, but the people I hear argue for that are typically religious fanatics.

As a woman, I have nothing against periods except that they happen and they happen to me. I like the thought of being able to do away with them at will. Being close to the age when women in my family start menopause, I like the heads up that the period gives me but not the expense and mess.
You could skip periods with the older pills by simply not taking the placebos in the cycle and by having a willing gynocologist. I have done that in the past, usually at exam time and during summer vaction.
For women who like to bleed, more power to them. I like that it it now an optional extra.

It's tampons what are unnatural. Natural is going to sit in the woman's hut for a week.

I wouldn't argue against the women's hut. It is the closest thing to a vacation those women got- a week when someone else took care of the house, young and field. I would imagine that that might be worth sitting in a dark stinky place some months.

The biology of menstruation is something of a conundrum. What’s it for? When’s the last time you bought kotex for your dog or cat? Mammalian reproductive strategies and methods are as various as their teeth or their limbs. The broad divisions you probably already know: Monotremes (platypus, spiny anteaters) lay eggs and have lactiferous skin patches rather than proper teats. Marsupials which, with the exception of bandicoots, never evolved a proper placenta, are born as what we would almost consider embryos who must then crawl unassisted from the vagina to the maternal teat that swells inside the infant’s mouth, effectively locking it on. (The teat may or may not reside within a pouch, and the fact that the offspring must crawl through mom’s fur to get to it precludes marsupials from developing forelimbs into flippers, hooves or wings.) Eutherians ( placental mammals –us), have long gestational periods and give birth to relatively well-developed young. The similarities of eutherian reproduction pretty much end there. There is a large variety in uterine shapes, placental design, timing of ovulation, cycling frequency and cues, implantation cues, etc. Lots of placental mammals live where birth is best timed to seasonal factors such as temperature and food abundance and may use various means of timing birth, including delayed fertilization (some bats), delayed development (Jamaican fruit bat), delayed implantation (many small carnivores, roe deer), and brief, season-specific estrus (many mammals).
While all placental mammals have an ovarian cycle, only primates have a menstrual cycle where the endometrium sloughs off with lots of bleeding. Some rats for instance have uteri that slough continuously. Why do primates have bloody uteri? Who knows? Evolutionary contingency: it seemed like a good idea at the time and it does the job.

The March 13, 2000 issue of the New Yorker magazine has an interesting article about the “naturalness” of menstruation and its regulation by natural vs. artificial means and the health consequences thereof. The article also has an interesting history of the guy principally responsible for the development of the birth control pill and how he tried to square the pill with his religious faith and the catholic church and how that engendered an artificial menstrual cycle being built into the pill. On this subject and the subject of the New Yorker article see: and also the book: Is Menstruation Obsolete? By Elsimar M. Coutinho and Sheldon J. Segal, ISBN: 0195130219.

I don't think the argument that "natural is better" is entirely devoid of merit. Corporate science does have a track record of occasionally exaggerating its understanding of some new technology and underestimating its long term risks. I personally would be cautious about long-term biochemical interventions in the body for that reason. But I'm not a Luddite, and I don't think "natural" is intrinsically more moral than "unnatural" or anything. Amanda's point about centering this particular debate on issues of health and cost/benefits is sound ... but I'd just add the caveat that there may be more unknowns to the equation than is acknowledged.

The only merit I put in the "it's natural" argument is that nature is a long duration experiment. There is nothing intrinsically better about it. I like to counter the "it's natural" crowd with, "So are scorpion venom, leprosy and being eaten by lions." Nature is casually brutal and indifferent to the fate of humanity. Mother nature ain't your momma.

I'm currently facing the dilema of whether or not to dose myself (a bio-identical cream) hormonally enough to have a period thus relieving bad hot flashes (or "power surges" as is the new fashionable term for them) or to just dose enough to not have one(I haven't had one for 3 months.)

BTW - The progesterone creams that you can get at health food stores without a prescription actually do work. I was very skeptical, but willing to try anything.

Uhm... I'm sure you ladies will work things out.

And although I'm completely at a loss for an appropriate segue...

Happy towel day.

now that medical science has made it optional

Now? Every woman I've lived with/roomed with, has always chosen this option, so it's been available for at least 30 years in my home country - is it something new in the US? (surely not)

Lindsay, this is only somewhat related but how do you think this relates to more general issues of naturalness in political and moral philosophy. Many social contrast theorists assume that the natural has some privileged status. Any thoughts?

firefalluk raises an important point, the technology for period-skipping has been around as long as the pill itself. People who think it's feminist to take the pill can't easily argue that it's unfeminist to take the pill on a schedule that eliminates periods.

A few years ago, I read an interesting article in the New Yorker called "Dr. Rock's Error"--Dr. Rock was a pioneer of hormonal contraception and a devout Catholic. He hoped to convince the Catholic Church that BCP were theologically correct because they were just a variant on the rhythm method. He argued that if it was okay to control your chances of conception by figuring out your "safe" days, it should be okay to use medication to make every day "safe." So, for marketing purposes, Dr. Rock decided that BCP regimen should be designed to preserve the appearance of a natural menstrual cycle.

David, I generally don't think much of appeals to what's natural in moral arguments. Empirical facts are always relevant to moral reasoning, but I don't think appeals to what's natural or unnatural do any work.

More on the "not everything natural is good" front: In my teens I hated my periods and used an entirely natural way to prevent them--I didn't eat (granted, there were lots of other factors involved, but stopping my period was a not insignificant one). Used the method for a couple of years. Of course, a lot of other "natural" things happened to me during that time--lost a lot of weight, hair fell out, got weird fuzzy hair on extremeties, heart started to fail...

The good news is, I'm better now, but I do suffer from some longer-term negative health problems as a result, and I won't know if I can have children until I stop trying not to. At some point before I became very sick, the doctors wanted to put me on birth control pills to add hormones to my system (which had stopped making them) and induce periods, in order to guard against some negative effects (particularly around osteoporosis and reproductive damage). I ended up getting too sick before this happened, though.

'Natural' is simply a state, unaltered by external force. Its a fairly arrogant human presumption that we are external to, or separate from nature, generally above it, either due to god/spirit or by virtue of intelligence. From a godless point of view, its really a false dichotomy. Intelligence is natural, so must be the results of it.

Regardless, you can't derive an ought from an is anyway. Just because something is a certain way doesn't mean it should be that way. One must make a value judgement.

All lines of reasoning are based on premises. When discussing morality, one must have a moral premise, a value judgement. Empirical data is only helpful after one has this.

What is of value is dependent on perspective.

I'd say the feminist part would be in letting a woman decide what she values, menstruation is not a sickness, but its not always welcome either.

Having/not having a period and the moral/natural argument are used only to further "political" or social agendas. If natural is moral, we should all be living naked in the grass, as someone pointed out previously. This is my argument, precisely, with the anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-sex-for-pleasure group. If god didn't want us to have sex except to procreate, he/she would not have given us the intellectual ability to make the technology to do otherwise. The old "wings" vs. flying-in-an-airplane argument.

I only ask that women concern themselves with possible unrevealed side-effects. Hormones are powerful molecules the body relies upon in intricate ways. We need to be alert to the fact that our chemistry is complex. That is the only moral principle here.

A related story: One of my HMO's used a nurse practitioner to give well-woman exams. I tried to discuss the use of hormone replacement therapy with her, and my fears about it. She told me to go to a health food store and buy "natural" herbal products. For 10 minutes I tried to make her understand that such products still contain similar ingredients to prescription drugs (i.e., estrogen & progesterone) but she insisted that they--being "natural"--were harmless and wholly beneficial. After all, she had attended seminars given by store employees. How did this "health practitioner" pass her licensing exam? Damn, mercury is natural, but will kill you if you swallow it!

A few years ago, I read an interesting article in the New Yorker called "Dr. Rock's Error"...

FYI, the article was written by Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point & Blink), and is available online @

There was an interesting article in Scientific American that said in pre-industrial societies women had, on average, 150 periods during their life, but that in modern America a woman can have up to 400 periods during her life. The additional 250 hormonal cycles is a major factor in the increase in the rate of breast cancer. That women no longer have 15 children causes them to have many more periods than what is natural.

Thanks, Lisa. It's good to read that article again.

Politics aside, I retain a healthy skepticism towards most mass-marketed pharmaceuticals, particularly ones that screw with the human reproductive system.

Also, in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet helped make breastfeeding a much more efficient method of birth control. Once agriculture was adopted and people settled down, the population skyrocketed, both because crops could feed a lot more people than hunting and gathering could, and because women started ahving more babies because of the dietary changes. One of the ironies of the agricultural revolution is that it enabled a lot of great things, and enabled a rapid population expansion, but on an individual level, hunter-gatherers are significantly more healthy, and often several inches taller on average than farmers using non-modern agricultural techniques (i.e. farmers throughout most of history, and even today in some parts of the world).

Even today, women in nomadic tribes typically have a child every four years. They usually breastfeed exclusively until the child is three years old, at which point it can walk on its own. Being pregnant and having a toddler you have to carry, or having a toddler and an infant at the same time just aren't very good survival strategies if you're on the move all the time. That said, even with a hunter-gatherer diet, breastfeeding as birth control didn't always work, so it was supplemented with abortion, because a woman just couldnt' afford to have another baby until her youngest was self-propelling.

So a hunter-gatherer woman (i.e. the lifestyle of all humans across the world until a few thousand years ago) would actually not have a lot of periods. She'd probably have a few before she got pregnant, then she'd be pregnant for nine months, and then she'd be breastfeeding for three years and be unlikely to have a period, then after she weaned she'd probalby have a period for a few months, then she'd get pregnant again.

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