Natural Causes | Barbara Ehrenreich

Summary of: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer
By: Barbara Ehrenreich


In ‘Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer’, Barbara Ehrenreich challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding medical treatments, screenings, and our society’s fitness craze. By examining her own experiences, alongside broader societal patterns, Ehrenreich questions the usefulness of these practices, especially in one’s later years. She argues that medical screenings and tests are often profit-driven rather than patient-driven, and that our competitive nature fuels an unhealthy obsession with fitness. Prepare to confront the beliefs and rituals surrounding health, medicine, and aging that may not be as beneficial as we think.

Medical Checkups after 75

As per Barbara Ehrenreich, regular medical tests do not make sense after the age of 75. Despite having health insurance, she thinks time-consuming and stressful medical checkups do not lead to anything worthwhile since it is best to let nature run its course in the later stages of life. The author believes that medical screenings only profit doctors and the health sector, as better technology leads to more tests, which culminates in an increase in overall industry profit. Ehrenreich argues that doctors also target new parents with potentially unnecessary interventions.

Childbirth as a Ritual of Humiliation

The medical rituals associated with childbirth have historically been used to humiliate and dominate women rather than benefit them. In the mid-twentieth century, American women were routinely sedated, anesthetized and subjected to painful procedures that could harm both mother and child. The author argues that these procedures, such as forcing women to lie on their backs and cutting their vaginal openings, are unnecessary and only serve to degrade women. Shaving pubic hair and administering an enema send the message that women are dirty. The author concludes that modern-day childbirth is a ritual of humiliation and domination over women.

The Overrated Value of Medical Tests

The US healthcare system spends billions on physical exams that are often traumatic and useless. The author critiques yearly breast and prostate cancer screenings and reveals that they don’t lead to lower rates of mortality. In fact, almost half of the nascent prostate cancer cases detected in older men don’t develop into severe forms. Cancer screenings can also be distressing, forcing women into intimate examinations that resemble sexual activity. Despite these issues, medical tests continue to be touted as life-saving, reflecting a broken healthcare system that prioritizes profits over patients.

The Fitness Obsession

The Western world’s obsession with fitness can be attributed to competition and societal pressure. Job insecurities and disappearing middle class drive individuals to strive for physical fitness as a symbol of social standing. The concept of a lifetime job no longer exists, leading individuals to compete for survival and strive to become better, stronger and fitter. The increasing ruthlessness and competitiveness of Western society have resulted in the obsession with physical fitness. In addition to societal and economic pressures, membership at health clubs has become a sign of social status. Physical appearance and fitness are now markers of the middle class, while unhealthy behavior is frowned upon and considered “low class”. Overall, the drive for physical fitness is a result of societal and economic factors beyond just good health.

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