Fuck the biological norm!

Vector illustration of female hand showing rude Fuck you gesture.

Breastfeeding is the biological norm.

So right-handedness.

So is heterosexuality.

So is continuing unwanted pregnancy.

Why do lactivists give moral authority to nature when it comes to breastfeeding but deny that same moral authority when handedness, sexuality and unwanted pregnancy are involved?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Why do lactivists pathologize women who don’t breastfeed, but not women who are left-handed, gay, or those who have had abortions?[/pullquote]

Why do they pathologize women who don’t breastfeed, encouraging moral condemnation, but would never pathologize women who are left-handed, gay, or those who have had or seek abortions?

Philosophy professor Alison Suen confronts some of these issues in her new paper The Construction of a Consumable Body in Feminist Philosophy Quarterly.

She cautions against assuming that the biological norm is either desirable or necessary:

… [F]eminists should be especially wary of this sort of “nature” talk… [T]he idea that it is “natural” (and hence necessary) for a lactating woman to breastfeed may inadvertently promote the perception that the woman’s body is always at the service of others… [T]he way reproduction happens nowadays is highly regulated by technology—there is nothing “natural” about taking birth control pills or wearing a condom, and while miscarriage is part of nature, abortion is not. Given that many of the reproductive rights we want to safeguard for women are not “natural,” the appeal to nature in pregnancy narratives is problematic from a feminist point of view.

If contraception, abortion and other reproductive technologies (in vitro fertilization, freezing one’s eggs) are perfectly acceptable UNnatural choices for women who wish to control their own bodies, why isn’t formula use equally acceptable for the same reason?

And she gets to the heart of the matter when she discusses the dangers — for women in particular — of ceding moral authority to nature:

When nature becomes a “moral authority,” can it still make good on its initial promise to liberate women, allowing them to reclaim control over pregnancy and childbirth? Or does it liberate women from the tyranny of the medical establishment only to subject them to the new puissance of “nature”?

More to the point, does giving moral authority to nature liberate women from technology or subjugate them to misogynistic beliefs on how women ought to behave? Giving moral authority to nature would justify efforts to “support” left handed women into becoming (or pretending to become) right handed. It would justify efforts to “support” gay women into becoming (or pretending to become) straight. It would justify laws that limit access to safe, legal abortions.

But the greatest danger is this:

…[A]n appeal to nature that accords nature a moral authority does not necessarily promote diversity or tolerance, especially when such an appeal merely replaces one practice with another as the proper, normative practice. In other words, even if the language of nature may empower some, it is done at the expense of others…

When the biological norm becomes a moral standard, those who are biologically “abnormal” are almost invariably oppressed. For example, the most malignant expressions of homophobia are often justified by insisting, correctly, that heterosexuality is the biological norm.

Suen concludes:

It is time to jettison our reverence for “nature” and consider a new strategy to support breastfeeding mothers, a strategy that does not presuppose a good mom/bad mom dichotomy or deepen the perception that it is an ever-present responsibility for women to maintain a consumable body… [W]ithout the “authority” of nature to normalize … we can also begin to reconsider the question of what makes something or someone consumable, and whether we are justified to treat them as such.

In short: fuck the biological norm.

Just as the biological norm does not and cannot justify homophobia or restricting access to abortion, it does not and cannot justify pressuring women to breastfeed.

  • MaineJen

    I. Love. This. Title.

  • Allison

    Dying of diptheria is a biological norm, too. Granted, some of these clowns encourage that by being anti-vax…

  • BeatriceC

    My argument is a little bit different. Every species has traits which enable them to better survive. Humans’ greatest survival trait is our brains, capable of higher order thinking, and opposable thumbs. Combined that gives us the ability to manipulate our environment for better survivability. That means medical intervention and formula *are* the biological norm. Failure to use those traits to aid in our survival is going against nature.

    • rational thinker

      yup many years ago hunting and gathering were the norm and as a result the human race nearly died out then we figured out farming and agriculture and our species recovered and flourished.

  • Cartman36

    I have never understood the biological norm argument. We have spent the last 10,000 years rising above the biological norm.

  • fiftyfifty1

    Again, thanks for finding and highlighting these philosophers and the important work they do. How you manage to stay abreast of the philosophy literature, plus the OB literature, plus the widwifery literature, plus the breastfeeding literature, plus the lay press, I will never know. And then, on top of that, you write all your posts and maintain this website. Thanks.