Monday, September 3, 2012

Some thoughts on Death by Veganism, Legitimacy, and the War on Women

I’ve been working on some material about the reported connection between eating disorders and vegetarianism, and I ended up in a place I wasn’t expecting, focusing, for a few pages, on the media’s linking of several cases of infant mortality to veganism.  I’ve read some of the commentary about these cases in the past, but I hadn’t really realized until now the ways that much of the criticism has focused on the role that the supposed nutritional inadequacy of the mothers’ breast milk plays in these cases, which got me thinking – as much has lately – about external attempts to control female bodies, particularly when it comes to their status or potential status as maternal bodies, and about questions of legitimacy, in this case, in terms of diet.
Consider the nature of the media discourse about veganism more closely: Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan, in their 2011 study “Vegaphobia: Derogatory Discourse of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers,” used the LexisNexis database to search the terms “vegan,” “vegans,” and “veganism” in all UK newspapers for the 2007 calendar year in order to analyze the Foucauldian concept of discourse[i] – whether positive, neutral, or negative – with regard to the topic of veganism.  Of the 397 articles that they examined, only 22 (5.5 percent) were positive; 80 (20.2 percent) were neutral, and 295 (a whopping 74.3 percent) were negative (138).  Of the articles that treated veganism negatively, the authors characterized the negative discourse by placing it in one of six categories.  These are, in order of frequency of occurrence, ridiculing veganism, characterizing veganism as asceticism, describing veganism as difficult or impossible to sustain, describing veganism as a fad, characterizing vegans as oversensitive, and characterizing vegans as hostile (139).  

...but the news media doesn't.

According to Cole and Morgan,

empirical sociological studies of vegans are rare . . . .  When they are present as research participants, they are usually treated as a subset of vegetarians and their veganism tends to be viewed as a form of dietary asceticism involving exceptional efforts of self-transformation.  (135)

What such studies tend to overlook, therefore, is the importance of animal rights for vegans, an area of research that remains largely unexplored.  If it is, according to Cole and Morgan, “plausible to assert that on the basis of existing evidence, veganism is understood by most vegans . . . as an aspect of anti-speciesist practice” (135), then cultural discourse that conflates veganism and vegetarianism (on the one hand) or that views veganism as simply a more severe form of vegetarian dietary restriction (on the other) disregards the primary motivation for veganism – animal rights and animal liberation – as it focuses instead on a rhetoric of dietary restriction, denial, and privation.  And while this study was conducted in the UK, the discourse about veganism is similar, if not more negative, in the US.
Perhaps nowhere can the linkage between discussions of veganism and issues of privation be seen as clearly as in “Death by Veganism,” Nina Planck’s 2007 editorial in the New York Times that discusses Crown Shakur, who died at six weeks of age after “his vegan parents . . . fed him mainly soy milk and apple juice” (Planck).  As a result of their son’s death, the parents were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.  Planck, who, according to the article, was once a vegan herself, is the author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why; her web page claims Planck is an advocate of “traditional foods. She will liberate you to eat red meat, butter, raw milk, and lard.” For Planck, a “vegan pregnancy was irresponsible” (“Death by Veganism”), and she asserts that in her study of indigenous cultures, “there are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long term” (“Death by Veganism”).  In her outrage at parents who would deny their child animal-based food, she makes inaccurate claims,[ii] particularly that vitamin B12 is “found only in animal foods,”[iii] and equates veganism with faddism, noting that “food is more important than fashion.”  As an aside, if you want to read what I consider an informed response, go here.

Not at all fashionable.
In addition to the case of Crown Shakur and the outrage against veganism that it sparked, since 2001, worldwide there have been four other cases of infant mortality that have been depicted in the news media as having resulted, in some form or other, from veganism: in addition to one other case in the United States in 2005, there was a 2008 case in France, a 2001 case in the UK, and a 2002 case in New Zealand.  The news stories all focus on the vegan status of the parents – and in at least two cases, on the inadequate nature of the breast milk of the negligent vegan mothers – as well as on the diets that they fed their children prior to death. 

A March 30, 2011 headline in the Mail Online reads French Vegan Couple Whose Baby Died of Vitamin Deficiency after being fed Solely on Breast Milk Face Jail for Child Neglect.”  The couple, Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou, are described as “militant vegans” in the article.  In an article about the case in New Zealand, the author notes “Roby and Deborah Moorhead are vegans. . . . Mrs. Moorhead’s breast milk was deficient in B12 and inadequate for Caleb’s nutritional needs.”  In addition to their radical diet, the Moorheads are also characterized as “radical Christians,” and supposed extreme religious beliefs are likewise linked to veganism and the 2005 death of Woyah Andressohn of Miami: “it has also been reported the family's diet may have been connected to their religion, known as ‘Hebrew Israelite’ which promotes raw food and natural eating.”

OK, so a disclaimer, which I would hope is unnecessary, but I’ll add nonetheless: to critique the presentation of these cases is in no way to undermine or downplay the seriousness of the circumstances that led to the death of these children.  It is, however, an attempt to look at these cases in a broader context and to examine the sensationalizing rhetoric that depicts veganism as a menacing danger inflicted by negligent, uninformed parents – primarily mothers – on their children.  For some perspective: according to the Centers for Disease Control’s infant mortality statistics for 2008, “the U.S. infant mortality rate was 6.61 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.”  Further,

The leading cause of infant death in the United States in 2008 was congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities . . . accounting for 20 percent of all infant deaths. Disorders relating to short gestation and low birth weight, not elsewhere classified (low birth weight) was second, accounting for 17 percent of all infant deaths, followed by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) accounting for 8 percent of infant deaths. The fourth and fifth leading causes in 2008 were newborn affected by maternal complications of pregnancy (maternal complications) (6 percent), and Accidents (unintentional injuries) (5 percent). Together the five leading causes accounted for 57 percent of all infant deaths in the US in 2008.

According to statistics complied in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “nationally estimated 1,560 children died from abuse and neglect in 2010. This translates to a rate of 2.07 children per 100,000 children in the general population and an average of four children dying every day from abuse or neglect," and according to the World Health Organization, world wide, “every year, there are an estimated 31,000 homicide deaths in children under 15.”  Finally, “this number underestimates the true extent of the problem, as a significant proportion of deaths due to child maltreatment are incorrectly attributed to falls, burns, drowning and other causes."  If we take the 31,000 figure as the yearly average of world wide child death attributable to abuse, neglect, and murder, then the singular “death by veganism” incidents that occurred in 2002, 2005, and 2008 constitute .0032 percent of that number for those years.  In 2001, when death by veganism spiked to a whopping twin instances, the percentage is .0065.

Regardless of these statistics, however, these cases and the media’s focus on the supposed vegan diet fed to these children by their parents generated overwhelming condemnation of the parents in these cases and of veganism in general as an unnatural and unhealthy lifestyle[iv] -- and it generated an abundance of articles condemning vegan mothers for breast feeding.  It is not my intention to prove or disprove the role that veganism played in the deaths of these children, nor do I want to expound on the extant data in support of a vegan diet as more health supportive than an omnivorous diet; my sense is that these cases are tragic and were caused by some combination of legitimate neglect and misinformation. 

My sense is that these children suffered horribly.  And my sense is that their parents have suffered horribly as well.  But what seems significant with regard to these particular cases is both the focus on the diets of the parents as “radical” (and, at least in some cases, the link between radical diet and radical religious beliefs), the role that that diet played in the way that these cases were investigated, reported, and punished, and the fact that the content of the mothers’ breast milk – in two of the cases – was of central importance.  Given the statistics above, and given the miniscule number of vegans in the global population at large, children of carnivorous and omnivorous parents die of malnutrition and neglect far more often than children of vegan parents, but the diet of the parents almost never makes headlines,[v] unless that diet deviates from what is considered the standard.[vi] 

Of the French death by veganism case, Mike Adams on chastises the “vegan police,” claiming that “if the ambulance had shown up and found a dead baby in a family whose cupboards were stuffed full of junk food and fast food -- sugary cereals, McDonald's food wrappers, frozen pizza, ice cream and donuts -- that would not have seemed suspicious at all.”  Adams’s position, while extreme (he goes so far as telling parents to lie about their veganism in order to protect their children), highlights the way that veganism is treated as anathema to appropriate parenting.  Adams addresses the breast milk issue as well:

be prepared to fight the State for your right to raise your baby on breast milk. The State . . . believes you're supposed to be feeding your baby processed "junk" infant formula made by powerful corporations. That infant formula, of course, contains . . . soy proteins extracted with the toxic solvent hexane. Even the DHA in many infant formula products is essentially "synthetic."

If you think a vegan woman's breast milk is dangerous, here's some more info about infant formula.

In a cultural moment in the United States marked by a childhood obesity epidemic, the product of a high calorie and high fat diet combined with limited exercise, there has been only one case where a parent has been charged with neglect for the morbid obesity of her child.  In 2009, Jerri Althea Gray was charged with neglecting her 14-year-old son, a child who, at that time, weighed 555 pounds.  Sherri F. Colb writes “the arrest of [the child’s] mother and his removal from her custody raise an important question. . . : Might it be child neglect simply to feed our children the Standard American Diet?”  It’s a significant question – and one to ponder – when the “Standard American Diet” consists of 35% fat.  Check out this New York Times feature that tracks the devolution of the Standard American Diet…which, of course, is S.A.D. 

And in our present political moment, we find ourselves in the midst of a media frenzy with regard to the Republican Party’s so-called war on women, a platform characterized by legislation aimed at limiting women’s access to both birth control and abortion and fueled by rhetoric that seeks to establish such entities as “legitimate” and “forcible” rape.[vii]  Simultaneously, we are experiencing a proliferation of popular cultural narratives that champion women’s ability to be bawdy and funny, to be sexual, and to be in control of their sexuality.[viii]  Given where we are, perhaps it’s time to consider how much of our cultural discourse represents veganism as a form of extreme and dangerous dietary control – and as an illegitimate choice that runs counter to the “standard American diet” – and how such representation factors into this broader political and social discussion. 

[i] Their paper addresses Foucault’s concept of discourses, “recognizing them as ‘structured ways of knowing’ which become ‘institutionalized practices’” (136).

[ii] For a summation of these points, see John A. McDougall’s letter of response:

[iii] B12 is produced by bacteria, not by animals, but animal foods are the best source of B12.  However, it occurs naturally in nutritional yeast as well, and can be found in numerous vegan supplements. 

[iv] A google search on August 31, 2012 for “vegan baby death” pulls over four million hits.

[v] See my later discussion of Jerri Gray for the exception.

On August 19, 2012, KTVI-TV posted to its Web site an interview with Todd Akin, Republican representative for Missouri’s second congressional district, in which he was asked whether he believes abortion is justified in cases of rape.  He replied that rape does not result in pregnancy:“It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
[viii] I’m thinking, for example, of films like Bridesmaids (2011) and the HBO series Girls, which premiered in April of 2012.

Work Cited

Cole, Matthew and Karan Morgan.  “Vegaphobia: Derogatory Discourses of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers.”  British Journal of Sociology 62.1 (2011): 135-153. Print.


  1. Very nice! The Cole/Morgan study sounds excellent.

    My one caveat: I’m dubious about even the accidental implication that stigma upon vegan parents is more stringent than that put upon parents of heavy children, or that stigmatizing the fat is somehow more logical than stigmatizing vegans. While both stigmas exist and tend to focus primarily on mothers (go figure), Adams’ suggestion that parents aren’t stigmatized for their children’s weight or for feeding them a diet of processed food is inexplicable. We have a culture in which, in 2011, a heavy child could be removed from parental custody and his weight taken to constitute a priori evidence of poor parenting and ill health…even when the child in question showed no actual signs of ill health. (I tried to add a hyperlink here, but the comments box won't let me--sorry.) Parents can be denied insurance for a healthy infant (who feeds only on breast milk) because of the child’s weight (about sixteen pounds at four months--this was in Denver, but, again, no hyperlink.) The child obesity “epidemic” itself, despite the endless media hype, is also problematic: rates of child obesity plateaued between 1999 and 2006, and one reason for the “stunning rise” in obesity between 1980 and 1999 was the 1998 change in the BMI rating defining “overweight” and “obese”, which in a day changed the status of roughly 25 million Americans who were previously considered “healthy.” And we have, of course, a culture in which virtually anyone feels qualified to publicly diagnose the “health” of perfect strangers based on their body size and appearance.

    I’m saying this not because I think anyone should get into the who’s-more-oppressed discussion. Rather, it’s interesting because it looks to me as though stigma of vegans for what they (are presumed to) eat and stigma of people who are fat for what they (are presumed to) eat come from the same places. Commenters assume vegans can’t be healthy because their (presumed) diet is too divergent from the “mainstream.” Commenters assume that fat people can’t be healthy (and must not exercise) because their body appearance is too divergent from the “mainstream.” Neither group is considered “legitimate”--and isn't that an interesting term?--and in both cases observers feel free to speculate with authority about what members of each group eat and how “healthy” it is…or isn’t. People who feel threatened by either group seize upon sweeping claims about “health” to make health a moral category and to justify their prejudices. And the weight of both stigmas falls disproportionately upon women, and even more disproportionately upon women who either are or might be mothers. “Think of the children!” is the rallying cry in both instances—in a culture currently doing its best to deny women reproductive freedom, and to micromanage the ways in which they raise and feed their children.

    This stuff is fascinating…but also, if one is or might be a mother, somewhat terrifying.

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