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.

11 Responses to “Whataboutism, the favorite logical fallacy of natural childbirth advocates”

  1. Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild
    November 9, 2018 at 10:39 pm #

    once more for the folks in the back: “Natural” child birth is not the pretty “life experience” you painted in your privileged white lady fantasies.

    Real world “natural birth” looked like Sierra Leon until medical interventions came alone.


  2. sdsures
    November 2, 2018 at 4:59 pm #

    “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.”

    That sounds like a nasty retort, often heard on the school playground, circa Grade 3: “I know you are, but what am I?”

    • Griffin
      November 2, 2018 at 5:55 pm #

      Another name (acronym) for the “tu quoque” tactic is DARVO – Deny, Argue, Reverse Victim and Offender. It is spectacularly effective on empathetic and naive people.

  3. Jessica
    October 31, 2018 at 3:09 pm #

    Have you been following the blog “Without a Crystal Ball”? They are doing a series on the freebirthing movement. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/withoutacrystalball/2018/10/what-opponents-of-unassisted-free-birth-hope-to-accomplish/

    • The Bofa on the Sofa
      November 1, 2018 at 4:02 pm #


      A new story today of another freebirther who 1) was cheered on by the fb group while having prolonged labor past due date, 2) baby died, and now 3) won’t show her face in the group because telling others the bad outcome would be met with backlash for harshing their buzz….

      • swbarnes2
        November 1, 2018 at 6:55 pm #

        It’s so funny how they can say “We all know there can be risk” and “We don’t want to scare anyone with stories of deaths”. How many moms reading that board will assure themselves and everyone they did all the research they could, while their main source of research is hiding data.

        • sdsures
          November 2, 2018 at 5:04 pm #

          How do people function at the most basic level with this amount of cognitive dissonance?

          From what I learned about it, cognitive dissonance is an extremely uncomfortable feeling that most people will change their opinion of something in order to make that dissonance do away.

          But what does it take to live with it, day after day?

  4. Madtowngirl
    October 31, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

    What strikes me the most here, is that rather than feel sympathy for this woman or say something reasonable like “wow, I’m sorry you deal with these injuries from childbirth,” or “hmm, maybe we should talk about some of the injuries that women can sustain,” they immediately go into whataboutism. They’re making this woman into a victim AGAIN by refusing to acknowledge her story. Straight up cognitive dissonance there.

    • mabelcruet
      October 31, 2018 at 5:20 pm #

      There is a very depressing sameness of thought and action in this group of people. The RCM who refused to acknowledge (until forced to, in front of a government committee) that their push for natural birth had resulted in women feeling guilty about the way they’d given birth, and in the stillbirths, neonatal deaths and brain damage of very many infants; the homebirth enthusiasts who refuse to acknowledge that their cheerleading is leading directly to death; the lactivists who refuse to acknowledge that breast feeding has minimal impact on child health in developed countries and who instead continue to strive for evermore ‘sciency’ sounding phenomena like ‘epigenetics’ to scare women into doing what they, the lactivists, want them to do.

      All of these groups victimize women (and their babies) in one way or another. All of these people are condescending, patronising, paternalistic. All pretend that they are speaking for the women, that they are with the women, and advocate for the women, and yet all of them are told time and time again that they are doing nothing of the sort, and yet they STILL don’t believe what they are being told, by the very women who have lived the experience. It’s a frankly bizarre and very widespread mental aberration-just what sort of person do you have to be to listen to a person saying ‘this is what happened and how I feel…’, and answer ‘that didn’t happen and your feelings don’t matter/aren’t the right feelings?’

      • mabelcruet
        October 31, 2018 at 5:32 pm #

        As an example, I listened to Cathy Warwick, president of the RCM, being interviewed on the radio on Women’s Hour a few years ago. Caller after caller phoned in with horror stories about how they felt their midwife had talked down to them, or been dismissive, or ignored their wishes/birthplans, or had lactation consultants foisted on them. After every caller Warwick basically said that this was a one-off, that must just be a single episode, all other midwives were women-centered etc. But it was every single caller with a similar theme, so how could it possibly be a one-off? She simply refused to acknowledge the bigger picture, which is that there is something very wrong in midwifery care at the heart of the college. I know a lot of midwives, and they are generally a hard working and dedicated bunch, but they are being badly let down and misrepresented by their college and their leaders.

        • Sarah
          November 2, 2018 at 4:43 pm #

          They are indeed. Such massive variation in quality.

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