The Health Benefits of Not Getting Pregnant

I guess you can’t argue with science.

In case you haven’t heard, various studies claim that not having a baby is considerably safer than having a baby. Epidemiologically and statistically, they argue, the risks of pregnancy and childbirth are greater than the risks of contraception, or even abortion. But people keep having babies, so what’s the deal? Obviously, family planning advocates have done a lousy job getting the word out.

From a public health perspective, I suppose, it’s a simple “do the math” thing: Too many kids already strain the resources of our healthcare system, our government, and the environment, and now we have scientific proof that not having babies is actually healthier and safer than having them. So just stop already! It’s for your own good!

Life Brings With It Many Dangers
That got me thinking. There must be plenty of other common human activities that are fraught with statistical risk which aren’t receiving the attention they deserve. I’m musing about all this while munching on a bagel, with a cup of coffee at the ready, and then it dawns on me: Eating! Now there’s a risky activity!

Think of all the choking hazards involved in swallowing, or the possibility of inhaling your latte as you laugh at a Vine on your tablet. What’s more, think of all those folks scalded by their hot beverages, probably daily. AND IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW BIG YOU MAKE THE WARNING ON THE CUP, ordinary folks, caught up in the rush of daily existence, will still disregard how hot their coffee is and spill it in their laps.

Plus, there’s our obesity epidemic—people just eat too damn much! We’re reminded of this by the First Lady and a host of celebrities all the time via PSAs on every conceivable platform. And we don’t even need their reminders—the magazine covers in the grocery store checkout lines do a pretty good job already, with their svelte models and headlines about the latest celebrity diets.

So, with apologies to Jonathan Swift, I’d like to modestly propose a new public health campaign. I’m calling it: EAT–NOT!

It’s simple, catchy, and very green—think of all the plant life that will be spared if we simply halted harvesting. I’m counting on environmentalists—and PETA activists, of course—to be among the first to take up the EAT–NOT! cause.

And consider the public health advantages! No more aspiration pneumonia, no more choking—the Heimlich Maneuver will go the way of the rotary phone. And, like last summer’s tan, obesity will simply fade away, along with the associated higher risks of cardiac problems and diabetes. This a no-brainer—why haven’t we thought of it before?!

“Ah,” you say. “You’re forgetting that our bodies require nutrients and fluids to function. How will the EAT–NOT! campaign address that significant drawback?” I’ve got three words for you: Total Parenteral Nutritionor TPN as we call it in the healthcare biz. It’s a fairly common treatment in which all the nutrients and fluids you need are administered directly into your veins. Eating and digestion are bypassed completely, and the doc (with help from the pharmacist) steps in to totally take over your metabolic equilibrium needs.

Usually, TPN is reserved for the very sick—those enduring cancer or other ailments which prevent them from taking in oral nutrients at all, or simply not enough. The risks are low—mainly the possibility of infection to the catheter inserted in the blood vessels—and occasional lab work allows tweaking of the TPN formula to optimize nutrition and health.

So, obesity issues? No prob! Just reduce the calories in the next few bags, and watch the weight fall away. And how about other medical advantages—like diabetes management, for example. Blood sugars all over the map? Simply adjust the carb and insulin components in the formula, and you’ll have smooth sailing, endocrinologically speaking.

As you can imagine, TPN is pretty expensive, but once you factor in the cost savings—no more obesity alone means considerably less spent on heart disease, stroke, hip and knee surgery, etc.—then I think you’d agree that this is a campaign that deserves serious consideration.

Food Isn’t Just About Nutrition
On the other hand, getting a bag full of nutrients run into my vein isn’t quite the same as enjoying a bagel and a cup of joe—especially if I’m fortunate enough to be sharing them with a friend. True, it would be so much more efficient to have the intravenous treatment, but not nearly as pleasant, nor as conducive to conversation. Could it be that meals are more than the delivery of nutrients, and nutrients themselves are more than simply nourishment? Darwin would tell us that we have taste buds and appetite primarily for survival, yet can it be simultaneously acknowledged that those human features have a purely sensual value as well, not to mention a communal one?

I’m envisioning a big family dinner. As everyone enjoys the food, they talk. They laugh, they cry; they celebrate and mourn; they nourish themselves while they nourish relationships. Perhaps God gave us hunger and taste not just to get us to eat, but also to enable us to feast, and to feast is to join with others in eating extravagantly—something hard to accomplish via an IV drip.

G.K. Chesterton asserted something along these lines when he wrote about Omar Khayyam’s practical approach to drinking wine:

It is bad, and very bad, because it is medical wine-bibbing. It is the drinking of a man who drinks because he is not happy. His is the wine that shuts out the universe, not the wine that reveals it. It is not poetical drinking, which is joyous and instinctive; it is rational drinking, which is as prosaic as an investment, as unsavoury as a dose of camomile.

Are there risks involved with actual eating? Dangers and downsides? Temptations even? Yes, but I’m thinking that focusing on the risks misses the point—i.e., that feasts are more about the feasters than the food, and more about the stuff of living than the stuff of health. Maybe my EAT–NOT! campaign isn’t such a good idea after all.

The same goes for avoiding babies for health reasons. “All birth control methods are safer than childbirth,” Planned Parenthood informs us. I’m no statistician, so I won’t try to rebut that. Even so, like the image of someone choosing TPN over eating to avoid risk, there’s something downright silly—even ridiculous—about contrasting the risks of childbirth with the benefits of having another baby.

And for those not convinced, I offer this as supporting evidence in favor of risking childbirth: A Coke commercial from Argentina that went viral late last year. It’s hawking cola, I know, but it also tells a beautiful story of real family life in a mere 60 seconds.

Those of us with children know these emotions very well. Sure, having a baby can be a challenge. Sure, parenting is hard, and life with kids is bumpy. And, sure, there are plenty of risks involved with all of this, even dangers. But is it worth it? Should we take the risk?

I say: Feast!

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared February 23, 2014 on the author’s blog “One Thousand Words a Week” and is reprinted with permission.

Richard Becker

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Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

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