Thursday, June 15, 2006

Health and Morality

Health and morality are closely linked in the American society. It has something to do with the Puritan roots, I wager. Every few years the sin aspect of poor health habits crops up, and because of that Puritan smell in the air the solutions offered are always fairly punitive. We don't give people carrots (or chocolate) to live healthier lives, we whip their butts sore.

One of the underreported aspects of all the health warnings we get is that they are often taken as licence to interfere in the lives of total strangers. I remember reading a story about a pregnant woman in a bar who was refused the glass of white wine she ordered, because of the Government Health Warning about drinking while pregnant. Never mind that the French and the Italians and the Spaniards have been drinking wine for centuries and don't have countries inhabited by people with the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and never mind that it's actually legal for pregnant women to drink an occasional glass of wine. The health warnings about alcohol and drinking have morphed into something much bigger: the right to morally judge pregnant women's behavior and to even interfere.

Then there is the recent article about breastfeeding in the New York Times, an article which talks about a new campaign urging women to breastfeed, a campaign which seems to turn breastfeeding into yet another moral question. Not a health question, but a moral question. Mothers who don't breastfeed, for whatever reason, even a good medical reason, are bad mothers. They are risking their children's health. There will be helpful bypassers now with wise words of advice to give to every mother who feeds a baby from a bottle, you know, even if the milk in the bottle was pumped from the mother's very own breasts.

The same article doesn't tell us what mothers should do about nonexistent maternity leaves or the problems caused by many people not liking women who lactate in public (one of the reasons for putting breastmilk into a bottle). Presumably "good" mothers just burrow in for four years, never leaving their homes and letting the rest of their families starve for lack of earnings. And these "good" mothers will not complain that they have lost retirement benefits and money and promotion chances on behalf of their children. No. As one commenter on another blog stated, it is the children that were breastfed who should take care of their mothers in later life. So take notice, all you breastfed people out there.

Then there is the guilt of those mothers who can't breastfeed however hard they try. Not only are they failures, compared to all those valiantly suckling women out there, but now it's also ok to judge them as bad people. All whip and no carrot.

I'm sensitive to insensitive health policing because of that morality angle and the angle of offering all busybodies a chance to go around judging other people and feeling smug and helpful about it. I realized just how sensitive I am when I reacted to today's articles about the American Medical Association (AMA) urging large warning labels on high-salt food by feeling unable to breathe. And I don't eat salt at all, really.

Neither do I drink soft drinks or even alcohol (never mind what Echidne might do with her nectar bottles). So where does that reaction come from? I was breastfed, so it couldn't be because of the sins of my mother? No, I think the reason is that buttwhipping again. No carrots for as peons: Firms are not told to make fast food with less salt, firms are not told to find better alternatives for soft drinks. Instead we, the consumers, are told that the foods we can afford and enjoy are bad for us and that we just need to search harder, grow our own produce, make bread from scratch and take a few decades off while doing all this and breastfeeding. And if we don't feel that we can do all this, well, then we deserve the disapproval we get and the illnesses, too.

Morality and health really are mixed in all this. This bothers me, because the same society that gives us mostly negative incentives towards a healthier life also thinks that Rush Limbaugh's hatemongering is a valid form of political discourse and that Anne Coulter's urgings towards violence are "just jokes". Something has gone quite wrong in how we define "bad behavior", when advocating hate is ok but giving your baby a bottle is bad. Hate also has health consequences. Ask those who died in the Rwandan genocide.

Perhaps we should get AMA to supervise the political media in this country. Instead of a large red exclamation mark as a warning on salt containers we'd get a large red exclamation mark all across Rush Limbaugh's face, with a statement about how bad hatred can be for your health.
It's important to point out that I'm not arguing against the health advice here but against the methods used in its delivery.