Whataboutism, the favorite logical fallacy of natural childbirth advocates


Yesterday I wrote about doula Maddie McMahon who equated obstetric providers who do vaginal exams with sexual predators.

Midwives shld be debating the pros and cons of routine VEs and exploring the evidence, or lack of, for regularly fossicking around in a normal labour. I’m just a woman telling you that you need a damn good reason to finger me. Just telling me I’m Xcm is not a good enough reason.

What led her to make such an absurd, vulgar statement? She and other midwives/natural childbirth advocates were losing an argument. Her ugly comment was part of the extended effort at whataboutism that is the current go-to tactic of those who are forced to defend the indefensible.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When you can’t defend your actions, derail the discussion.[/pullquote]

MacMahon’s offensive comment was made in a Twitter thread on consent, specifically that women are not adequately counseled about the risks of vaginal birth and the increased risk of forceps used instead of C-sections. It was started by one woman’s heartbreaking admission.

This may sound dramatic, and may offend some, but speaking from the lived experience of life after forceps birth injury some days I feel I would rather have died, or my baby died, than the everyday reality of these injuries.

This woman, who may be suffering from incontinence and sexual dysfunction, had dared to question two sacred precepts of natural childbirth advocacy: 1. there are no risks to vaginal birth and 2.vaginal birth is always better than a C-section.

Worst of all, no one from the natural childbirth community could come up with remotely plausible defense of withholding critical information from women. Recognizing their inability to defend the indefensible, they resorted to whataboutism.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Whataboutism gives a clue to its meaning in its name. It is not merely the changing of a subject (“What about the economy?”) to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.

The tactic behind whataboutism has been around for a long time. Rhetoricians generally consider it to be a form of tu quoque, which means “you too” in Latin and involves charging your accuser with whatever it is you’ve just been accused of rather than refuting the truth of the accusation made against you.

The classic example of whataboutism in midwifery/natural childbirth advocacy is responding to the preventable death of a baby at homebirth with “babies die in the hospital, too!” (BDIHT)

It’s not clear to me that those who invoke BDIHT understand that the babies who die in the hospital are very different from those who die at homebirth. The babies who die in the hospital typically die of UNpreventable causes such as prematurity and congenital anomalies, whereas babies who die at homebirth die PREVENTABLE deaths as a result of being deprived of access to the lifesaving treatments of the hospital.

The BDIHT partisans tend to be woefully ignorant of basic arithmetic, specifically the concept of rate. Many more babies are born in hospitals than at home; therefore, comparing actual numbers of deaths in each birthplace is meaningless. If ten babies die in a hospital that delivers 10,000 babies, the rate of death is 1/1000. If two babies die in one hundred homebirths, the rate of death is 20 per 1000, 20X HIGHER than the rate of death in the hospital.

In this case midwives/advocates started out with “what about consent for homebirth” implying both that obstetricians don’t counsel women about homebirth and that therefore it’s okay for midwives to fail to counsel women about the risks of vaginal birth.

When they couldn’t derail the discussion — the tactic wasn’t working very well since most women are counseled about homebirth and they don’t want it — the midwives/natural childbirth advocates then retorted with “what about vaginal exams?” They know “many” women who receive vaginal exams without consent and against their will.

That tactic wasn’t working very well, either, since everyone agreed that women should not have vaginal exams without consent, so the whataboutism was ratcheted up to imply that those who do vaginal exams are sexual predators. It seems that MacMahon — puffed up with the self-righteousness to which natural childbirth advocates are addicted — was “reasoning” that denying women information about the risks of vaginal birth is okay because obstetricians are abusing women for sexual gratification.

That did finally derail the discussion as had been intended all along.

Over the course of three days and hundreds of tweets midwives/natural childbirth advocates had refused to address the concerns of the woman who started the thread with her heartbreaking lament. Why? Not as a defense of hiding the risks of vaginal birth, since that is indefensible, but as a defense against their own cognitive dissonance. MacMahon could not tolerate the idea that natural childbirth advocates are as paternalistic as the doctors they rail against. To protect HERSELF, she fabricated the slur that anything she fails to do is okay since doctors are worse.

UK midwives and natural childbirth advocates have been back-footed by the disastrous revelations of dozens, possibly hundreds, of preventable deaths at the hands of midwives clinging to the rigid, failed philosophy that vaginal birth is best. But they’re not going down without a fight and whataboutism is a key tactic in their efforts to avoid culpability for their indefensible failures.