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What Kills More Unborn Babies: God or Abortions?

October 23, 2012 3 comments

A Disclaimer

This is one of my longer posts.  I’m hoping to bring things back to about 1/3 the length and to lighter subjects in the near future.  But because I don’t post often, consider this to be a few posts worth in one update.

Today I’m going to, as the title says, look at who kills more babies: God or Planned Parenthood/abortions.  I am then going to look at the implications of that information.

Normally I write more traditional, attention-getting introductions.  I like to start with a story that makes this personal and then segue into my topic. Today I’m not doing that.

Sometimes I start with a disclaimer of sorts, and I will do that.

Read the entire post.  I don’t care how it makes you feel.  If you clicked on the link you were interested enough in what I had to say, so read it all.

When I get comments from people telling me that I missed the point I’ll know that they probably didn’t read the whole post.

You’ve been warned.

The Assumptions

Before I begin the showdown, as it were, I’m going to define my terms.

I…I think that counts.

First, so that nobody can accuse me of too much bias, I’m going to define things as follows: life begins at the moment of fertilization, regardless of implantation upon the uterine walls.  Scientifically and medically, implantation is the key moment at which pregnancy starts.  I am using fertilization because it is the most conservative (in all senses of the word) way of defining the issue of “life” and pregnancy.

Second, I will be explaining a lot as I go along, but in strict terms, abortion refers only to human intervention affecting implantation and/or termination of the pregnancy afterwards.  In other words, I am again being conservative and assuming that emergency contraceptives such as Plan B actually end a life, rather than prevent a pregnancy.

Finally, I am taking the strictly and vehemently pro-life stance that any abortion, regardless of the reasons for it, is wrong.  Thus, many of the numbers I will quote will be abortions conducted for the health of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.  However, reasons are irrelevant here, on both sides.

If those of you who are pro-life are sitting there cheering at how this isn’t even a contest because of the way I’ve defined things, hold on to your hats.  Shit is about to get very real for you.

It’s nothing, if not tasteful. Please see my cover letter if you’d like to hire me to do graphic design work for you.

The Throwdown: Planned Parenthood and General Abortions

To start, Planned Parenthood estimates their total abortions per year to be roughly 300,000.

Based upon research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, it is estimated that the total abortions per year actually numbers at about 1.3 million.

For those keeping tally at home:

Planned Parenthood – 300,000 (23% of total abortions)
Total Abortions – 1.3 million

The Throwdown: God’s Numbers

This, my friends, is where things get complicated.  Those staunchly pro-life and religious that, somehow, are reading this, will probably say there is no way God actually has any numbers to count.  But based upon the strict definitions that the most conservative pro-life standpoints argue (and that I noted above), this is untrue.

God loving the fetus, or lamenting it before it becomes another statistic?

With that said, these numbers were harder to count.  I could easily spin the statistics in favor of abortions by any method, but I figured I’d give a few ways that those numbers work out so as to avoid anybody saying I totally ignored some fact.

So I will start with a first set of numbers, based solely upon “natural” terminations of pregnancy including stillbirth, miscarriage and premature delivery resulting in death.

I included the latter because even with modern medical intervention, some premature babies don’t make it.  With that said, the pregnancy was technically “ended” early by natural means, so this one is on God’s head.  (I could, if I wanted to spin this more, include any premature birth, as prior to modern medicine this would have been a death sentence for the baby.  However, while I may be biased—see below—I do not want to be that blatant about it.)  This, to the best of my ability, only counts those that ended immediately in death.  That is to say, I did not includedeaths a year after the premature birth.

After this, I will include a second set of numbers will be all babies lost due to pregnancy complications.  This number is far wider and harder to keep track of, so I included both numbers because I figure it can provide a more even picture of how much baby death is on God’s hands.

Seeing as the general idea of this post is who kills more babies, it seems only fair to count infant death that results from complications of pregnancy against God.  You may argue otherwise, but if life begins at fertilization, anything related to pregnancy after that point has to necessarily be fair game.  You cannot arbitrarily cut off anything attributed to God after the baby leaves the uterus, as that would not credit him with the variety of problems that result from pregnancy.

One final note on God’s numbers: pregnancy loss can be categorized many ways.  While miscarriages and stillbirths are—it would seem—easily noted and reported, early pregnancy loss can occur well before a woman is aware she is pregnant.  As such, early pregnancy loss numbers are often difficult to compile and may be much higher than reported.  I have thus decided to include an additional section to account for those factors.

All of the following is based upon statistics pulled from these three sources and Wikipedia.

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that about 6.7 million pregnancies are reported in the US each year.  Two thirds are live births, a fifth are abortions and the rest are miscarriage.

This graph from Google, which errs on the conservative side of the numbers, still paints a bleak picture. It’s not looking good for the Big Guy.

Based upon the math that the Guttmacher Institute provides, these numbers are our results for the first category: 6.7 million pregnancies, 4.48 million live births, 1.34 million abortions, 880,000 miscarriages.  hopeXchange estimates about 26,000 stillbirths per year.  Additionally, the American Pregnancy Association estimates that 64,000 women per year lose pregnancies through ectopic pregnancy and 6,000 women through molar pregnancies.

For that second category, statistics indicate that 19,000 infants die in the first month and 39,000 in the first year.  This appears, to the best of my ability to narrow it down, to be limited to those caused by complications resulting from pregnancy in some way.

Finally, the numbers based upon early, underreported or unreported pregnancy loss.  hopeXchange estimates that up to 40% of all conceptions result in pregnancy loss (with many of the women being unaware of a pregnancy in the first place, and thus ending up being unreported).

Other estimates are far less forgiving.  One study found that 25% of all pregnancies abort by 6 weeks, while other studies place that as high as 50% of pregnancies.  In either case, these spontaneous abortions are not recognized by the woman because it occurred so early she was unaware of pregnancy in the first place.

So let’s look at those numbers and work backward to see what number are spontaneous abortions.  If one assumes that 6.7 million pregnancies occur each year and are known, and half of all pregnancies (from conception onward) result in spontaneous abortion, that means that—based upon the 50% estimate—6.7 million pregnancies are lost each year.  Even with the more conservative 25% number, we still end up with about 1.6 million pregnancies are lost before the woman is even aware she is pregnant.

Now let’s recap those numbers and total them for God:

First Set of Numbers:
Miscarriages: 880,000
Stillbirth: 26,000
Ectopic Pregnancy: 64,000
Molar Pregnancy: 6,000
Total pregnancy losses for group 1: 976,000

Second Set of Numbers
Infants lost in first month: 19,000
Infants lost in first year: 39,000
Total infants lost due to complications: 58,000
Total pregnancies lost, including infants: 1,034,000

Third Set of Numbers:
Infants lost in first month: 19,000
Infants lost in first year: 39,000
Total infants lost due to complications: 58,000
Pregnancies lost at 25% estimate: 1.6 million
Pregnancies lost at 50% estimate:  6.7 million
Total pregnancies lost at 25%: 2.6 million
Total pregnancies lost at 50%: 7.7 million

The Throwdown: Who Loses?

Let me be clear here: we are discussing pregnancies ending.  There is no winner.  There is only who does more damage.  That is something I’ll talk about shortly, though.  Let’s focus solely on numbers for now.

Based upon those numbers, I have reached the following conclusions.  I am presenting them in easy-to-digest list format:

  1. If one only does PP vs. God, God loses at 3x as many babies killed.
  2. If one figures total abortions vs. God, abortions lose. God kills 75% of the amount that we do by abortion.
  3. When one includes post-birth deaths, God kills 80% of the babies that people do through abortion.
  4. If you consider the last group of numbers, unreported pregnancies, god kills between two to six times as many babies as all people.  That’s 200-600%.

What’s the point?

Part of the “experimental” nature of this particular post was not equivocating at all in the introductory portion.  Normally, on a subject as particularly contentious as this, I might make the effort to ensure that my intentions are clear.

Also, I consider myself irreverent.  I’m bad at serious, even when I’m being serious.  But to me, this topic isn’t serious.  Neither God nor PP nor abortions, in my mind, kill babies.  So over-the-top and offensive as it may be to some, this post is more an exercise in dark humor, than anything.

But I didn’t want people to know whether I considered this actual ironclad logic or just a tongue-in-cheek showdown.  The answer is, really, a tiny bit of the former and a significant portion of the latter.

So then you might ask, what is the point?  Was I just trying to piss people off and get views? Clearly, yes.  But there also is a point buried in those statistics.

My point is that abortion is a ridiculously complex issue that cannot simply be boiled down to when life begins and how to avoid “taking” said life.  Rather, we must consider all aspects of the issue and ultimately, I would argue, leave the decision about abortion in the hands of women.

I could write an entire post about the intricacies and difficulties of this, but I believe that women should decide if abortion is right for them on their own, without the government interfering.  Especially because some women do not see the fetus as being a life, and some women do not believe in the religion that says—somewhere in the Bible, like it always does—how wrong it is.  This is not a decision for the state, but for the individuals involved.

But then, what do we do with the women who, unaware they were pregnant, accidentally caused a miscarriage through consumption of alcohol or punishing physical activity?  Do we try them all as murderers?  Do we ignore that?

But where this leads is neither here nor there.  I do not want to get bogged down in the intricacies of the debate, but rather only what my post might mean for it, if anything at all.

A Short Note on my Biases

There is no possible way this could be biased.

I am a firm believer in laying out my biases.  It is my belief that biases are the author’s most powerful tool.  When they are present but invisible, the audience runs the risk of being swayed in one direction.  When they are present but overly visible, it’s Fox News.

But when they are present, visible and acknowledged it means the author has to, in my mind, step outside of himself and accept that he is seeing things a certain way.  In doing so, the biases remain but, I feel, the power shifts to the reader, who can then decide if the information presented is still appropriate, even when examined in light of a known bias.

For that reason, I’ll openly state that I am not a fan of organized religion.  I am socially progressive, and I believe that abortion should be available to any who feel they need it.  (I’ll get more into that in a little bit.)  It is my belief that were religion to be robbed of its power in terms of this argument that the science and our own ethics would lead us to accept, rationally, that abortion must rightly be available to women as an option in order to maximize social good.

I do not, however, wish to undermine anybody’s belief in religion.  So while I speak harshly of God in the following passages, do not mistake my distaste for his presence in this issue with an attempt to dissuade you of religion.  Rather, I just feel that this is one place where religion needs to either step aside and let humans make the decision free of God, or find a way to cope with the social changes that are taking place.

Let me also be clear that when I sat down to see how these numbers added up I had no idea what it would look like.  Had it turned out the other way I would still have written a post, and it would look much different.  I don’t know that my convictions against religion’s place in this argument would be nearly as strong.  You do not have to believe me, but I am making it clear now that my intentions with this post are, really, the exploration of a new idea toward simply gathering knowledge.

God’s Plan

(Please note, I will capitalize “God” when I speak of the Christian deity, but I will not go to the effort of capitalizing pronouns because he is not my god, and I also just think it’s silly. Call me lazy, but it’s not happening.  It’s not a habit and I don’t care enough about it to take the time.)

I’m glad God things the universe is akin to playing sports.

Ultimately, what I have shown above is that as a result of natural or supernatural influence, more than 0 women per year lose pregnancies.  That is to say, either God or Allah or whatever deity, or nature, decides to terminate the pregnancy.

There is no conceivable rhyme or reason to the people upon whom this potentially devastating turn of events falls.  Sometimes women who were raped end up carrying children to term and sometimes women who want nothing more than a child of their own genes find out they cannot have one, and anytime they do it terminates.

Simply put, there is no outwardly rational decision-making process behind what pregnancies nature/God ends and what stays.  Because of that, many women suffer unnecessarily, either because of pregnancies that should never have happened or because of pregnancies that should have but never came to term.

To the pro-lifer who believes life begins at fertilization of the fetus, every single one of those pregnancies ended a life.  In this sense, the only difference between us doing it and nature doing it is the reason behind it.

For those not familiar with utilitarianism, a grossly boiled down version of it is that what is right is what does the most good for the most people.

Currently, we are not doing that.  Not in the slightest.  My super-boiled-down version of utilitarianism would, then, argue that we provide the option to provide the most happiness to the most people.  In other words, we can control who is forced to carry what child to term.  This means increased happiness (or a better chance at it, perhaps) in the life of the pregnant woman, as well as eliminating the chance of unhappiness on the part of the would-be child.

That may seem somewhat coldhearted, but ultimately we do not know that the child’s life would be all sunshine and giggles.  I cannot imagine the life of a child born of rape being without difficulties, even if he was living in an adopted family.

If all unwanted pregnancies ended in strange and depressing, yet oddly charming, musical numbers maybe we wouldn’t need abortions.

In other words, we have it in us to correct some of the failings of nature.  Pregnancy is indiscriminate and without intent.  It happens when it happens and doesn’t when it doesn’t and it terminates on its own when it does.  What abortion allows is an option for us to provide agency to these outcomes in an attempt to maximize happiness.  That is, of course, assuming there is no intent behind those actions.

Now, the only way that one could reconcile the problems I listed above is to assume that there is a grand design behind these decisions, but that said design is not visible to us.  In other words, that a rapist being pregnant and seeing a reminder of her violation in the face of a child makes sense, while the woman facing perpetual miscarriage is also part of some grand design.  We just can’t see it, but it is all part of some plan.

Since it is unlikely that nature likes to reward rapists—and is unfortunately just as unlikely that it likes to punish them—the only actor whose means and intent could be unknowable would be a deity.  Since America is largely (and in my view, unfortunately) composed of Christians, the presumed “actor” in this case is, well, God.

So this goes into God’s plan.  Because God has one, as most Christians will tell you, and when little kids die of diseases and murderers and rapists live long lives, it’s because he totally intends it that way. I, for one, am not content to assume—in light of all the evidence to the contrary—that God’s plan for us is ultimately benevolent. Consider, the next time we discuss reproductive rights, if God’s plan so far has made any sense.

Ultimately what my little argument above intended to lay out was that God is responsible for greater than 0 deaths every year—deaths that his believers tend to consider unborn children.  Deaths that the same believers consider ultimately sinful to end.  And yet, it is okay for God to do so in His plan, but not okay for us to do so to maximize social good.

Thank you, Philosoraptor, for summing up my post in a meme.

That is the crux of my argument.  That God is ensnared in the same moral quandary that pro-life believers will use to try to dissuade those advocating choice.  That is a life, it is wrong to end a life, and thus we should not end it.

But if God is benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience incarnate, then he could not engage in any act—by definition of those traits—that would be immoral.  He simply could not end those pregnancies if it were wrong.  Pro-life: 0, Pro-choice: 1.

But let’s say that, somehow, we still have a strawman of a pro-lifer that says that even then, killing those babies is wrong.  God knows it, God is still benevolent, but it is part of his plan an ultimately it leads to benevolence, even if the means to that end isn’t necessarily so.

To accept that premise we’d have to accept one of two things: first, that God either does not consider those fetuses as “alive” or that God is capable of immoral actions if the good from it is greater.  Which means that, if we were to live in his example—he is supposedly perfect—we should also be able to engage in actions that are immoral if the good is greater.  Pro-life: 0, Pro-choice: 2.

But let’s say another, different pro-lifer strawman decides to argue that God isn’t benevolent—he cannot be benevolent in order to truly enact his plan, as he must sometimes act immorally even when the ends are not positive in order to, further his plan.  In other words, sometimes God is an asshole.

If that is the case, why would we ever consider his example?  Why would we follow a deity that is ultimately capable of bad things without it leading to greater good?  Why would we, then, follow what he supposedly says about abortion, the argument religions that follow him make?

These are not proofs.  Nor do I believe that somebody couldn’t punch holes in them in the manner I wrote them (or even in a lengthier, more solid format).  But that is to say that these are things to consider, because we have a case where religion is telling us God doesn’t want us doing something and then he does it himself.

It is the classic case of do as I say, not as I do.  Which, let’s face it, is just shitty parenting.  Thanks, God.

Other Things to Take Away

Not that I’d be the first to point this out, but my big reason for giving women the ultimate say in the issue is because it is ultimately mostly their lives at stake.  The more observant out there would probably agree that a small portion of the abortion debate, no doubt, lies in the idea of men controlling women’s reproduction.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger is counted among that 77% then we have to change the percentage. Sup, Junior.

After all, it’s cool when men use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, but as the argument over the Pill showed, it’s not cool when women do it.  (Admittedly, the Catholic Church is just backwards enough to have never really been in favor of either, really.  Even if they do sometimes change their mind when it is politically expedient to do so.)

Abortion is the ultimate one-up on men.

A man can rape a woman, he can ignore contraception and impregnate the woman.  All of these things are, ultimately, shows of the control.  But when the woman goes to end the pregnancy the rapist forced upon her, she is told that she is wrong.  That she must live with what he did.

Perhaps I’m being excessive, but it does not have to be in situations of rape.  Men can “forget” condoms and be cavalier all they want, and the women must suffer the consequences.  Abortion is an equalizer.

This, too, could be discussed in lengthier posts.  It could also and has also, no doubt, been discussed by far greater minds than I.  But religion has never been noteworthy for being particularly socially progressive, so why would it be any different in the case of pregnancy?  Women should get pregnant when men decide it is okay, and they shouldn’t have a way out, right?

Finally, The End

One of the key parts of my statement is that there should be no real restrictions on abortion, not in the sense of it only being available to rape or incest victims.  That is a politically expedient way for rich, old white men to say that they hate women controlling their bodies but accept that men do stupid shit and they can’t pretend they don’t.

In other words, it’s a cop out.  The act of abortion is no more or less wrong in those cases, really.  The same action takes place, and while the motivation changes that does not mean that the woman who wants an abortion but wasn’t raped doesn’t feel it is any less necessary.  I don’t think any of us could really say.

Recently unearthed science.

But also, when you start adding in restrictions you allow the system to become more restrictive.  Who’s to say that suddenly rich old white men in congress decide that some rapes aren’t legitimate.  What if incest only counts when it’s a parent, not a cousin.  What if harm to the mother only means if there is an absolute medical certainty that the mother would die, and if there is any chance she wouldn’t abortion is off the table?

In my mind, it is far easier to accept abortion as an all-or-nothing.

The problem is that we often hear slippery slope arguments about abortion as a contraceptive.  And you know what, a world where women get abortions instead of using the pill scares me.

Of course with any system we must always run the risk that said system will be abused.  But in my mind if a single woman every year is spared the mental torture of, say, carrying the child of her rapist to term, keeping abortion legal is worth it.  It an expected product that some person will abuse a system in place for good and assistance, but we cannot assume that system is now worthless because of that.  For as long as that system helps a single person, it is doing its job. (I’m looking at you, republicans looking at welfare with greedy eyes and malicious intent.)

In a perfect world, every pregnancy would come to term and there would be no rape, incest or danger to the mother. Ina perfect world a woman could only become pregnant when she really, really wanted it, not just any time one of the guys happened to sneak in past the guards and crash the ball.

But the world is not perfect.  According to the numbers above, neither is God.

I guess my intent is to ask why we cannot, for just this one issue, ignore what the Bible and religions say and discuss this in terms of what it means to women?  Why must abortion be about a grand message in morality?  Why must it, really, all just be about religion grandstanding?

Random Googled pro-life girl is pro-life until she gets knocked up and her parents want to hide it so their friends don’t find out. Or she just won’t get any, making abortion a moot point. Pick one.  Also, is she foaming at the mouth?  Because I could swear she is.

Why must men be so threatened by the idea of women having control over their bodies, something that, really, we have denied them for almost all of human civilization?  Why must men be such a dominant voice in the debate?  Why can’t we simply defer to the women, graciously saying
“you know, it’s kind of all about them” as we do so?

Why can’t the debate over abortion be about what it has always been and should always be about: women making decisions about their health and reproductive rights?

So if I have to call God a mass-murderer—one with death tolls yearly that rival Hitler’s, and that’s only counting unborn children—I’ll do it, even if it’s polarizing, glib and ultimately pointless.  I’ll do it if it stands event the remotest chance of turning this debate back to the women about whom it should be.  I’ll do it even if it changes only one person’s mind.

I’ll do it even if I’m just yet another man talking about something that he, really, probably shouldn’t be talking about in the first place.

As an aside, I rarely ask for comments but I am interested in what women have to say about this.  That is, about the removal of religion, men and morality from the issue and discussing it solely in terms of women’s health.  Am I just talking out of my ass, or do women actually want it to be centered upon the issues of health, rather than what evil jezebels they are?

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Natural Doesn’t Mean Safe, Unnatural Doesn’t Mean Dangerous: The Problem With Growing Trends in Alternative Medicine

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

1.

A few days ago I was visiting a friend of mine.  She was putting her kids to bed, and I knew that if I wanted to actually get time with her that night I would have to help.  With that in mind I volunteered to assist with them brushing their teeth.

Before starting I asked if the two kids—ages 4 and 6—were able to do it themselves or if they needed help.  Both of them proudly told me they could do it themselves, so I left them to their tasks and merely stood back, supervising.  The older of the two—Andy—had no problem.  My heart raced however when I noticed that Amy—the younger—had swallowed a mouthful of toothpaste.

I began searching around to see what she had used and saw only Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, nothing meant for children.  I asked her which she used and she pointed to that tube.

Tom's of Maine

Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste: another way to spend more money to show people how awesome you are.

Keep in mind that I knew that a small amount of toothpaste probably wouldn’t kill anybody, even a young child like her.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t know that for sure and figured I had to let their mom know.  I ran out into the living room where my friend waited—sliding into the room as frazzled as Kramer—and told her what happened.  For all of my worry, I was astounded at the answer I received:

“She can swallow that stuff.  It’s all natural so it’s okay if she swallows it.”

The next statement to come out of my mouth came as a matter of reflex, not forethought.  I told my friend, and I quote, “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”

I began an explanation about the fact that many of the ingredients in normal, not-natural toothpaste were technically natural and probably also in this toothpaste.  Nonetheless, I kept being met with ardent denial that any harm would come to Amy, always because the toothpaste was natural.

Exasperated, I realized I was probably overreacting anyway.  (It was a small amount, after all.)  But I still couldn’t help but think about her statement.  Throughout the night I curiously asked her about the issue, soon beginning to discuss medicine in general.

What I found was that my friend—in matters of her own and her children’s health—was completely mistrustful of the medical discipline and ardently refused to take herself or give to her children any medicines that weren’t natural as anything but a matter of last resort.

I tend to have a problem keeping my opinion to myself, which meant that this discussion soon led into a debate of sorts.  I kept hearing arguments from her about how little she trusted doctors because, after all, they are know-it-alls who are wrong more often than not, who overprescribe medicine and, above all, are just another cog in the machinery that is “Big Pharmaceutical”.  The doctors we once trusted were now the enemy.

Perhaps I’ve kept myself in the dark on this to avoid facing the truth, but attitudes like those of my friend are more widespread than ever.  I can’t help but feel that a decade or two ago my friend would be looked at as nothing more than a conspiracy nut, an outlier.

Which led me to wonder, then, why thinks took such a sharp turn.  Why is it that doctors and medicine are taking a back seat to alternative treatments?  The kind of mind-body and herbal treatments that once laid on the fringe of medicine now find proponents in seemingly reputable places.  What is it that drives people away from medicine and into the arms of the alternative?

2.

Pictured: stress relief, the cure for cancer and how to prevent heart disease.

Perhaps I should first define my position on this topic and, more so, the reasons for that position.

I find myself of the mindset that doctors have trained themselves and honed their skills and that, for that reason, they are reputable sources of information.  Is every doctor going to be totally trustworthy? No. That is why there exist ethical review boards and second opinions.  But are some untrustworthy or incompetent doctors a reason to turn away from medicine?  I, personally, think that is a rash and potentially dangerous decision.  Let me be clear: if there isn’t a damn good, peer reviewed study that supports the claims of this treatment I don’t think people should be using it.

If people were seeking alternative treatments for only minor ailments and in conjunction with “traditional” medical treatment, I think that I would not be so opposed to this.  However, somehow people have gotten it into their heads that traditional medicine is less effective than these alternative treatments. Yet, every year Americans spend $27 billion on alternative treatments, especially herbal remedies.

Unfortunately, the FDA does little to regulate these alternative treatments and independent labs often come up with results that are inconclusive or show that alternative treatments are ineffective.  The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine continuously says that these treatments are effective, yet the contrary seems to be empirically true.  If they are ineffective, you’d hardly know it from the 48% of American adults who sought alternative treatments at least once in 2004.

3.

I should be clear about the reasons people seek alternative treatments.  The ones I’m focusing on are herbal remedies and certain holistic, mind-body methods as well as integrative medicine (mixing these bullshit procedures with traditional medicine.

Though I cited that kind of example at the start of this post, cases like that are actually the minority of people who eschew traditional medicine because of bad experience or mistrust. At least, that’s what “research” by the NCCAM and other entities suggest.  Instead, they say, people just find that alternative treatment methods fall more in line with their belief systems.

All doctors look like this to the proponents of alternative treatments.

Understandably, though, some people also wish to avoid the unpleasant and potentially life-threatening side-effects of traditional medicine.  What good does it do, the thinking goes, to fix one illness at the risk of other side-effects?

I would argue that despite the NCCAM claiming otherwise, mistrust Americans feel for doctors plays a significant role in seeking alternative medicines.  Doctors, like all people, are people.  (I know, you wouldn’t have thought that, right?)  Unfortunately, these people have our lives in their hands.  It’s no surprise, then, when some people don’t like it when doctors make mistakes, something that—being people and all—they are wont to do.

In the NY Times article I linked above about mistrust toward doctors, one Ms. Newman—who has moved toward alternative treatments—says, “I don’t hate doctors or anything, [. . .] I just know they can make mistakes, and so often they refer you on to see another doctor, and another.”

I can understand Ms. Newman’s frustration with being referred in a circle.  But she said it herself, doctors make mistakes.  Wouldn’t you prefer that your doctor ensures his opinion is well-founded before he goes on with treatment?

In the case of Ms. Newman—and the many others like her—it seems doctors can’t win.  If they make a mistake they will have undermined the fundamental trust they require from patients and thus drive her toward alternative treatments because, you know, how dare they make mistakes.  But when they refer her for second opinions to help ensure her safety, she is equally pushed toward alternative treatments.

Recently I was watching an episode of Warehouse 13 involving a woman who worked for a drug company.  When she was asked why she didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor, she responded with the entirely convincing: “Have you ever noticed that doctors seem to know everything already?”

Or like this. Just look at how self-satisfied she is. She probably gave her expensive sports car a name and lights cigars with your money.

To many, that would seem to be incredibly arrogant.  To me it just means he is a good doctor.  This is the man who diagnosed my appendicitis—before any diagnostic testing—by just looking at me.  Was it a hard diagnosis? Probably not.  Is it a good thing that my doctor can accurately diagnose me that quickly?  Yes, because any delays or wrong diagnosis could have cost me my life.  (My appendix was, after all, just shy of bursting.)

There is a concept called “systemic arrogance” within medicine, the idea that highly impersonal healthcare systems—such as our own—force doctors into seeing patients as objects, rather than people.  They are a mechanic and you are the vehicle.

To the doctor, treatment needs to happen quickly and efficiently, else that is wasted money and potentially loss of a job.  There are more patients than doctors by a large margin, and there is only so much time to see each one.

To the patient, the doctor comes off as a know-it-all who disregards the patient in favor of his own expertise.

I understand all of these things, but there are some reasons I regarded my doctor’s ability to diagnose me and finish the office visit in about five minutes with a sort of reverence, rather than considering him arrogant.  The first of those is that, despite his need to be efficient, I have been a part of his practice for a long time and he knows me well.  He has put his time in over years, five-to-ten minutes at a time.  Not all doctors have this luxury, though.

But the other thing I wish I could explain to people is that doctors have a ridiculous amount of education and, in most cases, actual experience.  He has a title in front of his name—doctor—that implies a certain level of expertise in medicine.  We, as patients, do not have that.

So while we may not like the doctor’s diagnosis, that doesn’t mean that we suddenly have the expertise to question it.  Doctors are there to treat us, not coddle us.  Just because your symptoms came up as cancer on webMD doesn’t mean that it’s not a far simpler disease.

So of course, what that also means is that when it comes to matters of health, that doctor is a much better source of information than you about anything medical.  When we feel condescended to it is unfortunate—and a sign, perhaps, that the doctor’s bedside manner could use some improvement—but it seems like the knee-jerk reaction lately is to ignore the knowledge behind that arrogance or, even worse, to avoid doctors.

I know it’s hard for people to accept, but doctors far outstrip the general population in that sense and the sooner we accept this fact the sooner we can improve our health.

4.

I can think of no person more representative of this shift toward alternative treatments than Dr. Oz.

He’s on TV! He must be more trustworthy than any other doctor. Television never lies to us!

As a general rule, many doctors don’t like him.) Why? Because Dr. Oz is a medical professional willing to step outside of the mainstream to push alternative methods to wellness that other doctors won’t.  This is important, so keep it in mind.

I believe I’ve discussed before the idea of the insider connection.  People, in my experience, seem more inclined to believe information when it is attached to someone within said establishment, regardless of actual expertise.  It makes some sense.  If you’re going to take advice on how to get the best deals at Wal-Mart, it makes sense to talk to a Wal-Mart employee.  Similarly, if you want medical answers you’re going to get them from a doctor, not the homeless guy on the corner.

Dr. Oz is not only an insider, but an insider that has a great personality and couchside manner (I call it that for hopefully obvious reasons) on his show.  So we are already more likely to trust him more than other doctors, and this is even more exaggerated when he tells us what we want to hear, like when he tells us something that disagrees with the rest of the medical profession.

When doctors agree that X is a good treatment for Y, some people resist it because they have an inherent mistrust for doctors.  But people love it when Dr. Oz comes along and says W is a great treatment for Y.  People eat that shit up.

When Dr. Oz says that stinging yourself with bees (to use the enzymes in the venom to do scientific shit) on purpose works to help arthritis, among other illnesses, we eat that shit up.  Never mind that there is literally not a single shred of peer-reviewed evidence that apitherapy does anything at all, because Dr. Oz says it works.  Never mind that it would typically be administered by an acupuncturist—someone whose main practice depends upon energy gates in our body being opened by needles (to be glib)—it must be safe and effective.

This is only one example, but how much nicer must it be to hear that there is a non-medicinal treatment for your arthritis?

Of course apitherapy is on the crazy end of the spectrum, really.  Most people wouldn’t want to be stung by bees, and definitely wouldn’t find it invigorating.  But people do rely on herbal treatments.

5.

Perhaps its unfair of me to focus so much of my effort on attacking alternative treatments and the proponents of those treatments while saying little of traditional doctors and medicines.

I can completely understand people’s reticence toward becoming overly reliant upon either traditional doctors or traditional medicine.  After all, seeing doctors as arrogant and not trusting them is one thing, but most people would say there is a reason for said lack of trust.  Often those people will point to traditional medicines.

After all, just listen to the last ten seconds of any medicine advertisement.  Listen to the side effects.  Terrifyingly, death is sometimes included among those side effects.

Is it really so shocking that people would want natural treatments?  These lab-born medicines may seem to do more harm than good.

Of course, I should not have to do much to defend these medicines, but I may as well do it anyway.

For one, many of us seem to see drug companies as big, heartless corporations intent upon making money on our illnesses.  We think of companies withholding cures, rushing medicines to market without regard for patient health and, most commonly, charging exorbitant prices for the medicines we so often need.

I could write many posts just about the process behind creating a drug.  Needless to say, the majority of costs from medicines come not from researching it, but from performing the studies required to get FDA approval.  Once the drug hits the markets—and if the company has a patent—they will charge an amount that helps them recoup some of the losses.  If they didn’t do this they would be out of business and we wouldn’t have any medicines to blame for society’s ills in the first place.

6.

But let’s go back to the all-natural piece.  Think of my friend’s daughter, Amy, eating her toothpaste.  It’s all natural, so it must be safe.  Right?

Clearly if these doctors say it’s safe, it must be!

While people have no illusions about the general dangers of taking any traditional medicine—because there are always some, even if the dangers are merely minor side-effects—they seem to shut off that part of their brains when it comes to herbal or natural remedies.

What people don’t seem to realize is that just about any combination of herbs can make its way to your store shelf, regardless of safety.

Medicines undergo years of testing to find out if they’re safe and what side effects are common.  In the cases where you hear “death” as a side effect, the FDA and drug company must determine the cause of such incidents.  Sometimes they are related to something like a drug interaction or are so isolated as to be statistically insignificant, other times the severe side effects are more common and, as a result, the drug must go back to the drawing board.

No such process exists for herbal remedies.  If you go to your vitamin section of your local store, you’ll see shelf after shelf of supposedly natural remedies.  The thing is, the company can take any plant or other natural substance, claim it does something and sell it to you without the FDA ever testing those claims.

Any company can put out a natural supplement and claim it helps something.  All they need is some supporting evidence, but it does not need to be independently verified.

It should be no surprise that there are unscrupulous doctors and researchers out there—as there are in any field—that will author a study with a certain result in mind.  These studies can then be used to support the claim on the bottle, so long as it has the familiar disclaimer that the FDA has not evaluated those claims.

Enzyte: because fancy cars don’t help once you get to the bedroom.

We often ignore that disclaimer, but it is important.  Consider, for example, Enzyte.  This pill is a remedy that claims male enhancement.  You’ll always see fine print on the bottles and the commercials stating that those claims ahven’t been evaluated by the FDA.  While some people ignore that and fall for it, the rest of us laugh because how would some stuff actually make a dude’s unit bigger.

Does it make sense that we dismiss those claims and yet equally believe that somehow a combination of herbs will actually reduce stress, help prevent heart disease or any number of other benefits?  In either case, though, people will often say that it can’t hurt, because it’s just natural remedies.

Though, that’s not really true.

Once the item is on the shelves, the FDA need only ensure that no safety issues arise from the supplement.  Only if someone reports an adverse reaction or illness is there a chance that said supplement is either removed from the shelf or the company sanctioned.

Next time you wander down that vitamin aisle, keep an eye on all the bottles.  Each one will say what it supposedly helps.  Typically those claims are beyond unclear, stating that they lead to the health of some organ, rather than claiming to reduce the chance of some disease or disorder.

You might see a supplement that claims to support “heart health”.   Planters has a line of nuts that come in various mixes that support heart, digestive and other organ health.  Some claims are even more nebulous, such as a “stress formula” that is claimed to reduce stress levels. There is little to no evidence that any of these claims are true, but there is no need for the companies to do anything other than furnish a single study that supports their claim.

Were the only concerns about herbal supplements the misleading nature of the packaging, I perhaps wouldn’t be writing this post.

In fact, vitamins and supplements can be just as dangerous as prescription drugs.  Even Dr. Oz admits that too much can be dangerous.

This is monkshood. It will kill you dead and never feel bad about it. It also happens to be natural. Therefore, it must also be safe.

The problem is that the FDA is also not really monitoring the amounts within supplements terribly closely.  While companies are expected to attempt to keep contaminants (such as other ingredients) out of and the right ingredients in the right doses in their supplements, there is still gross inconsistency with some supplements.  Often, the amount you think you’re taking and the amount you get are not the same.

One supplement that was recently recalled contained belladonna, an incredibly toxic plant.  In large doses belladonna can be lethal, and in smaller doses symptoms include tachycardia, blurred vision, rash, hallucinations, delirium and about ten other nasty-sounding health issues.

Just imagine if carelessness on the part of the company resulted in large doses making it into some batches. The problem is, that’s not too uncommon.

Beyond all of this, herbal supplements and vitamins, as with any drug, can interact with OTC and prescription drugs in potentially fatal ways.  Additionally, in the same vein as “too much of a good thing”, some of the supplements can be absolutely dangerous in large doses.

So does natural mean safe?  Absolutely not.

7.

As I’ve pointed out, I totally understand why people are tempted to shy away from traditional medicine—at least to an extent.  The reasons I pointed out above certainly are big ones, but there is a deeper reason that I didn’t touch on.

Ultimately, I think that the move toward traditional medicine comes because it is easy and it makes us feel good.  The general idea that people like Dr. Oz espouse is that if we love our bodies hard enough, if we eat healthy enough, take the right herbal supplements and buy the self-help book that Dr. Oz is pushing that week, we can be healthy enough to never need a doctor or traditional medicine again.

On one level, this provides us with control. We love control.  The idea of putting our lives in someone else’s hands is terrifying.  If we can avoid it, why wouldn’t we.

Sure he may have just ripped you off and convinced you that you needed $1000 in repairs you actually didn’t. But the joke is on him, because he’s just a working class schlub. He’s one of Romney’s 47%.

But I think there is an even deeper component to it than that.

It’s one thing when your car breaks down and you have to take it to a mechanic for a fix.  He may spew some words you don’t understand and leave you with a hefty bill, but at the end of the day his position in society is low enough that any arrogance we might see in him is undermined by the fact that society looks down on mechanics.  And not just because they’re blue-collar workers, but also because they are frequently stereotyped as trying to take advantage of customers.

Doctors, on the other hand, seem to stand above us both intellectually and socially.  We see doctors driving nice cars and then we go to their offices to be looked down on.  It is something wholly unsettling for the average person.

In the same way that looking down at the mechanic’s social standing is a way to retain control in that situation, moving toward alternative treatments is the means by which people can knock doctors down a peg.  If all it takes to get rid of your illness is a few herbs, a book Dr. Oz is shilling and some happy thoughts then it is well worth it.  Why?  Because that cure is common sense, and that takes the power away from the doctors and places it back in our hands.  Now doctors are just people with fancy degrees who rely on unnatural drugs to do the same job that herbs can do.  We have undermined them by making their field useless, and in the process made ourselves feel better.

Is this how every person thinks of the situation?  Probably not.  In those for whom this is true, is this a conscious thought process?  Probably not.  But it gets the job done.

Perhaps the best of all of this, though, is that alternative treatments are easy.  To treat your illness traditionally you have to make doctor visits, go to the pharmacy, take medicines and basically spend a lot of time and effort.

Conversely, if you eat right, think happy thoughts and take a few herbal supplements you can avoid all illness and in the end it’s even easier to do than going to the doctor.

8.

The market for alternative treatments is probably not going anywhere anytime soon.  As an industry it is seeing extreme growth across the globe.  People are increasingly wary of traditional medicine and traditional doctors, and until that is fixed people will flock toward alternative medicines.

I typically like to make things personal on my blog.  While I’ve certainly made clear my feelings, I have to say that this is something I have recently become passionate about.  The idea that natural means safe has recently become a part of American culture and it leaves a very sour taste in my mouth, all because it isn’t just my one friend that thinks this, it’s a great deal of Americans.

A lot of people seem to think that natural means something it doesn’t, and they think that wellness is something to be achieved through happy thoughts and watching a doctor on television.

I can’t see that being a good thing in the long term.