Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Vegan Pregnancies: The Portman Debacle

Since last week the internet has been buzzing with the news that actress and vegan shoe line owner Natalie Portman has admitted in a recent radio interview that she's resumed consuming animal products. I wrote about it not particularly caring which celebrity goes or stops being vegan this or that week. There's a constant churning, it seems, and the interpretations of "veganism" presented by the celebrities vary enough that any message that could get out to the public about what we really owe non-human animals almost always either gets mangled or lost.

The worst part is that each time a Natalie Portman decides to do an ethical about-face and cites lame or misinformed reasons to justify having done so, it actually sends a strong negative message out to the public about veganism -- or at the very least, it sends out an awfully confused one. And it's what it ends up triggering in its ensuing discussion that leaves me groaning a little. In Portman's case, for instance, every half-wit with access to a keyboard and an internet connection who is either antagonistic towards or dreadfully misinformed about veganism has been been rubbing his hands together in glee since the story broke (and I say "broke" although it wasn't exactly news, but just the first time Portman had gone in as much detail about her change in ethical stance).

Veganism Is teh Evil

OC Register (which I was told is published in one of the more nutso right wing areas of California) jumped on the opportunity to write a piece that not only questioned the safety of veganism for pregnant women, but its safety for anyone and everyone ("Is veganism right for pregnant women?"). The article starts by mentioning Portman's decision to stop being vegan because of cravings, as well as a vague reference she'd made in her radio interview to pregnant women needing to watch their iron and B12 levels. The article then proceeds to twist those comments into a given that veganism is unhealthy for pregnant women and extends that assumption further: "If shunning animal products is bad for pregnant women and unborn children, is it good for any of us?" The article's writer then talks to an OB/GYN "who knows a lot about prenatal nutrition" and who is "definitely against the vegan diet". And what did token expert Dr. Felice Gersh have to say?

"What is necessary when a women is pregnant to develop her baby or when she’s nursing, is really a good clue for what she needs her whole lifetime," she said. "Some vegans live to be 100, but in general it’s not a good idea to be a vegan."
The reasons for this, according to Gersh, are that vegans don't get enough omega-3 fatty acids through their food and are "notoriously deficient" in B12 and zinc ("because they eat so many grains"). To his credit, the article's writer does point out that omega-3 supplements are readily available, although he doesn't address her comment concerning B12 or zinc (nor their purportedly notorious deficiency for vegans) except to add that vegans claim that they can get everything they need from food itself. Basically, the article started with the assumption that veganism is unhealthy for pregnant women and then tried to carry it further (albeit in a really sloppy and open-ended manner) to extrapolate that it's unhealthy for everyone, perhaps planting a seed in the minds of its readers. This is the sort of thing that celebrities announcing their renunciation of veganism and then mumbling a few sentences about health concerns can trigger.

(No Really... Veganism Is teh Evil

Another anti-vegan opportunist to take off running with Portman's radio interview was
Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer and ethicist (of sorts) whose focus is on "human exceptionalism". Gary L. Francione debated Smith around a year ago on the Michael Medved radio show. Smith sees humans are more morally important than non-humans and periodically takes issue with the abolitionist approach to animal rights on his blog. In response to the whole Portman affair ( "Natalie Portman Puts Unborn Baby First by Abandoning Veganism"), Smith had this to say:
Vegans like to say that it is a perfectly healthy diet–more healthy than the biologically natural omnivorous human diet. While it can certainly be indulged healthily–if carefully managed with supplements, etc.–unlike our natural diet, it is potentially hazardous for pregnant women.
He then lapses into fear mongering by referring to the recent case in France where two flaky parents decided to ignore the recommendation of their doctor to seek further medical and nutritional counsel concerning their baby, opting to rely on things like cabbage poultices instead. As UWM Post writer Sarah Hanneken pointed out in a recent article ("Vegan parents in the media"), bad parenting is bad parenting and it's unfortunate that sensationalism-seeking mainstream media would rather jump on the word 'veganism' and vilify vegans to more easily sell a story than to actually present all of the facts. It's no surprise that someone as antagonistic to animal rights as Smith, then, would try to link a story such as this one to Portman's announcement, as if it could lend credence to his suggestion that veganism may be hazardous to pregnant women:
Good for her. She listened to what her body needed during gestation. Her baby matters more than “the animals.” Parents should not put their children at physical risk over ideology or belief.
So on the one hand, we have something like Natalie Portman's renunciation of veganism leading to the anti-vegans' spewing of more anti-vegan misinformation. Because of course, a celebrity's half-hearted reference to a vague possibility of nutritional deficiencies for pregnant vegan women who don't stay on top of how they're fuelling their bodies, combined with a story about a couple of flaky neglectful parents -- who happened to be vegan -- whose neglect led to the death of their child pretty much cement it that vegans opting to stay vegan through a pregnancy and to raise vegan babies (like Kenya, Anna and Woz and many more women I know) are putting "their [future] children at physical risk over ideology or belief". Riiiiiight.

On Not Really Ditching Veganism

Then there's the problem with "not-really-vegan" vegans hooking on to the news story to absolve themselves of deciding to become less than "not-really-vegan". For instance, on some baby blog today, a pregnant woman called Elisabeth Lambert who self-identified as vegan latched on to the news about Portman's having ditched veganism ("I'm pregnant, vegan, and all I want is a Junior Burger"):
So when Natalie Portman announced last week that her vegan diet had given way to the cravings she was experiencing as a result of her pregnancy, I breathed a sigh of relief. If Ms. Portman, Oscar-winning actress with millions in her bank account to spend on chefs, dieticians, nutritionists and health professionals, couldn’t keep up a vegan diet during pregnancy, then how was a mere mortal like myself expected to? And really, as long as your pregnancy is progressing well, and both you and your baby are healthy, that’s all that matters.
So you've got a pregnant woman who calls herself vegan attempting to absolve herself of having given in to a craving to eat a hamburger because the oh-so-famous Natalie Portman ditched veganism during her own pregnancy? (Why do I hear my mother's voice in my head asking me if I'd jump off a bridge if all of my friends did so?) Thankfully, before she reaches this conclusion, Lambert makes it crystal clear that her "veganism" was restricted to the consumption of food and that her "reasons for adopting a vegan diet were health-related, and not due to any ethical or moral stances". So when she writes:
The saltiness, the texture, the bun, the sauce…and the meat. Oh the glorious meatiness of the meat. That meat pattie [sic] was the best thing I’d eaten in forever, so much so, I let myself go into a burger stupor, knocking back burger after burger.
I'm a little less inclined to be shocked. Here was a woman who had merely avoided eating animal products up until that point, and very explicitly for her own personal health reasons. Rather than being some sort of ethical vegan confessional, she merely attempts to hop on the Portman story's bandwagon by admitting that instead of perhaps using animal products on her hair or to clean her counter, or to entertain herself, that she put some in her belly. "Meh," I think to myself. "Just another example of a non-vegan's seeking attention by co-opting the term 'vegan' and grabbing a headline to get her five minutes. The true disappointment with this article, however, comes at the end when Lambert asserts that there is a lack of information concerning veganism and pregnancies, which is just plain wrong. There is information to be had in everything from books on vegan nutrition to fact-sheets and guidelines by experts on various vegan websites, as well as on mainstream medical websites. Someone obviously forgot to use teh Google.

When the Vegans Who Think Unequivocally Promoting Veganism Is teh Evil Get Involved

Perhaps one of the worst things that ends up happening when some celebrity in the public eye gravitates from supporting veganism to reverting to using animals is when some animal advocates end up shaming other animal advocates for taking issue with it on any level, presenting what's too often valid criticism as making veganism seem too hard. Sara Best (self-described "mom
to two little omnivores and married to one dedicated carnivore") over at This Dish is Veg, for instance, wrote a piece ("Let's all take a breath and give Natalie Portman a break") in which she refers to vegans who'd engaged in discussing Portman's public about-face as having "erupted in a cacophony of chirping" and as "howling in response". With the same derision, Best denounces the criticism raised by vegans of pseudo-vegan Kathy Freston's attempts to water down veganism with her catch-word "veganish" and of vegans' clarifying that Bill Clinton's eating fish meant that he wasn't the vegan mainstream media was widely reporting him to be.
All this judgment flying around the purity of someone’s food choices scares regular people. [...] That soccer mom or that truck driver who heard about the benefits of a plant-based diet and thought about maybe trying it out, might just stick with the KFC if they think they might be attacked should they announce their intention to be vegan but be unable to stick to it a hundred per cent of the time. [...] It’s easier to just not try.
I don't even know where to start with this statement. First of all, the word "purity" almost only ever seems to get hauled out when someone is attempting to undermine anybody's holding veganism as a moral baseline when it comes to animal advocacy. It's used to shame those who refuse to condone "some" animal use as praiseworthy. But when Best emphasizes "food choices" and uses "plant-based diet" interchangeably with "vegan", it becomes clear that her interpretation of veganism does indeed allow for "some" animal use (i.e. that of animals not used for food), so it's no surprise that she would begin on this note.

Best goes on to tell advocates to keep their eye on the big picture, which she says is to reduce suffering for the non-human animals, animal industry workers and the very planet itself. (Funny that I thought that this big picture for most vegans actually involves an end to all non-human animal use -- not just a reduction in the suffering of some.) She points out that Portman didn't tell people to "load the kids into the minivan and hit McDonald’s for dinner" but that she's just admitted that she, herself, has gone back to consuming this or that animal part -- to treating animals as things that exist to satisfy her celebrity cravings. Best applauds Portman by saying that she's "still a vegetarian" and that "she still promotes conscious eating". But how the hell do either of these things matter? Whether you're eating animal flesh or eggs or dairy products, it's all the same to the animals enslaved for our use in the end. And as for this promoting "conscious eating" garbage, how on earth is it more ethical to use animals if you are actually aware -- "conscious" -- of what such use entails? One should hope that awareness would actually lead one to cease using animals and to not condone their use, rather than attempting to absolve oneself by claiming "I know where my food comes from".

Best claims that "what you choose to eat speaks volumes about what kinds of actions and policies you support and encourage". Well, Sara Best, what Portman chooses to eat speaks volumes about what kinds of actions and policies she supports and encourages. And your defending her and accusing vegans who've expressed concern over this and seems to speak volumes about what This Dish Is Veg supports and encourages -- and that doesn't seem to include not using animals or treating them like things. Instead of trying to silence valid criticism by conflating it with "attacking" and instead of accusing vegans of expecting those in the public eye who renounce veganism of expecting those celebrities to be "perfect vegans", how about recognizing that those vegans in question are actually worried about the fallout? How about recognizing that pregnant vegans aren't looking forward to having friends, family and even medical caregivers take off running with the ensuing media stories painting veganism as dangerous or portraying pregnant vegans as jeopardizing their future offspring? How about recognizing that shirking off the question of whether or not it's right to treat another sentient creature as a thing shouldn't be excused because of something as ludicrous as a food craving? Instead of accusing vegans discussing their concerns as "attacking" Portman, why not look at what really constitutes the big picture? How about not letting mainstream media -- as well as other animal advocates -- present veganism as involving any degree of deliberate unnecessary animal use?

The whole Portman debacle merely serves to drill home that as animal advocates and activists engaged in vegan education, we shouldn't focus on celebrities hopping on bandwagons. That being said, we really realistically need to make ourselves aware of the problems and additional work which may ensue when they hop off.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Joy said...

Totally agree. And who are these women who find it so difficult to be vegan while pregnant? I've done it twice, and truly, it's not that big a deal. Yes, it's important to be thoughtful about your food choices, but it certainly doesn't require the level of deliberation and fuss we keep hearing about.

Vanilla Rose said...

I just did a post on why I cannot rely on "listening" to my body. In a nutshell, the body is the id that has not much idea of whether its short-term messages are healthy for me.

I did actually hear (in a wholefood shop) about a genuine vegan who did have meat cravings when pregnant but who resisted them. I blame the writers of "Friends", who were clearly keen to ensure that Phoebe (not exactly the best vegetarian to begin with) was seen to eat a lot of meat when pregnant with triplets ... no, I don't blame them, but they did reinforce the idea of women starting to eat meat again when pregnant.

Anna Graham Shonle said...

I was pleased with how my midwives reacted to the fact that I was (am) vegan. They had no reservations about it at all. It seemed like they had seen lots of healthy vegan babies born on their watch already. This was at a birth center with pretty rigid rules about not taking any "high risk" pregnancies. At one point they had me go see an endocrinologist because my glucose numbers were a bit high in the glucose test, and I had to keep a food log and check my blood sugar for over a week. That doctor praised my eating habits and had no issues about what he saw in my food log, and couldn't see why the birth center had sent me to him. So I seriously roll my eyes whenever I hear anything about veganism being somehow dangerous during pregnancy, not that I had any doubts, but I wasn't even going against any care provider's advice.

meggyV said...

Thanks for this post, I have only been vegan for 9 months and I still crave cheese all the time (my pre-vegan ultimate comfort food.) However, I have been able to resist, it's actually quite easy as soon as I remind myself what it is and where it came from. I'd only been vegan a few months when I started dating my now fiance (who went vegan 1 month into our relationship) and I used to joke that when I got pregnant I would use it as an excuse to eat cheese (that's how bad my cheese cravings are) but that's changed over time. I would actually see it as irresponsible to expose my baby to dairy in the womb, I don't think it's right to eat it, so why would I want my baby to consume it? Basically I don't think there's any logic or scientific meaning behind pregnancy cravings and therefore it's not a valid excuse to start consuming dairy again. I've gone back and forth on how I feel about this "Portman debacle" as you call it, and it's been hard for me to make up my mind. I've read "The Dish is Veg" article you referenced and actually didn't have a problem with it untilI read this article. It's more of my nature to go with the flow and not worry about what other people are doing and so as I read that article I thought to myself "yeah, people really should calm down." Now, as I've read your article all I can think about is - wait, I plan on having a vegan pregnancy one day (probably a few), what does this media attention mean for me? It means I'm going to get asked 100 million times about my diet and if it's healthy enough, it means people are going to doubt that I'm doing what's right for my baby,

Vanilla Rose said...

Then I did another post about Ms Portman. If she had just said, "I thought I was ready to go vegan, but I was wrong", I wouldn't have. But I fail to see how her going on about B12 and iron, neither of which she was even claiming to be low in, and convenience, is anything other than unhelpful towards animals.

veganelder said...

You write: "we shouldn't focus on celebrities hopping on bandwagons". In addition to your points I might add that as a culture we have been conditioned to focus on external trivialities (and "celebrity" is one such triviality) to encourage avoidance of critical thinking...to keep our awareness away from the systematic and thorough destruction of our planet and any life on it that might contribute to "profit" or stand in the way of "progress".

Our cultural motto might go something like: "Keep the dummies entertained and distracted while we fleece them." Worrying about or focusing on the behavior of some non-entity like a "movie star" is one such way we stand gaping at the parade while the pickpockets do their work.

bethany said...

I have eaten a vegan diet since 1975, been pregnant five times, giving birth to six children, all babies between 7 lbs., 12 oz. and 9 lbs. 7 oz., healthy, and now normally sized healthy grown people. Even when I was pregnant with the twins (8 lbs. and 7 lbs 15 oz.), my only craving was for fried potatoes. I also liked mustard and sourdough bread. I did take a lot of multivitamins and supplements while pregnant and nursing, but made sure they were all made with vegan products.
Check out my veganhomecooking.blogspot.com blog of vegan recipes my family has enjoyed over the years. It really doesn't have to be difficult or scary--we think it is rather fun and delicious!

Ingrid said...

The American Dietetic Association has clearly stated that a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthy for all stages of life including pregnancy. They also mention that is should be 'carefully planned' but then shouldn't all nutritional intake be carefully planned, including an omnivorous diet? Link to the ADA position paper: http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357

Good article. Natalie should do what she wants, but this has taken my admiration for her down a bit. We all crave things from time to time (like Thin Mints for breakfast!) but that doesn't mean we should do it.

Kris said...

Totally agree- good article x

Unknown said...

I haven't been this apathetic about a celebrity since the Oscars.

I live in their habitat, and have gotten used to ignoring them.

Awesome blog you got here!

M said...

Thank you for the feedback everyone, and a special thanks to those who've shared their own pregnancy stories (either past or planned).

RW said...

I have to add my 2 cents as a pregnant vegan. I was vegetarian for ten years, then vegan for 1 year when I became pregnant with my first. I wasn't committed enough (i.e., hadn't done the research) and went back to a vegetarian diet. I stayed vegetarian through my next pregnancy, but went vegan along with my husband and two daughters about 2 years ago. This time I had the 'breakthrough' and I knew I would be vegan for life. Then I got pregnant again. This will be my first vegan pregnancy, so I was unsure of what to expect as far as cravings. Let me tell you, for someone who hasn't craved a single animal product for 2 years, I am having INTENSE cravings for cheese, eggs and smoked oysters. Sometimes I even crave fish. It was so incredibly easy being a vegetarian while pregnant - I never have had meat cravings - but vegan is a different story for me. I've got five months to go and I am hoping the cravings will disappear. I can't stand feeling this way. I eat really healthy, whole foods diet, so nutrition should not be an issue. Just wanted to point out that there is a part of the brain that is not rational and wants things that are hard to resist sometimes. I am experiencing this firsthand. I am glad there are many pregnant vegans who don't have this problem, but some do.