Word order can make a huge amount of difference to meaning. I suspect anyone who writes headlines knows this. Having never written headlines myself, I don’t know the precise rules on making a story a bit less true but a lot more interesting. I know, however, that it doesn’t take much to achieve this. Even the subtlest of differences can make a huge impact.

Right now several news outlets are running reports on Kate Middleton’s experience of giving birth. “Kate Middleton told friends: I had a ‘perfect, natural’ labour” reveals the Hollywood Times. “Kate Middleton calls birth ‘natural and perfect’” says the Christian Post. ”Kate Middleton tells friends of her ‘perfect, natural birth’” announces Yahoo. According to the International Business Times not only did Middleton have a “perfect, natural” labour, she even had a “perfect, natural” pregnancy, too (although anyone who knows the slightest thing about hyperemesis gravidarum might dispute the latter).

So, are we all spotting a pattern here? Perfect, natural, natural, perfect. It’s almost — almost — as though these two things go together. The perfect birth is natural (which I’m presuming means vaginal), and the natural birth is perfect. I mean, I know Kate Middleton didn’t actually say that, but then neither does she appear to have said she had the “perfect, natural birth”.

Here’s what Yahoo goes on to report:

“She spoke to some of her best girlfriends after the birth and described the birth as perfect,” a source told Vanity Fair.

“She said it was straightforward and there were no complications. She wanted a natural birth and she was so happy she was able to have one.”

Now call me a total pedant, but to me that sounds completely different to “I had a perfect, natural labour”. It’s a subtle difference, I know — and I realise with headlines there’s a need to be brief — but I’m pretty sure writers know what they’re doing when they put “perfect” and “natural” together. Indeed, that’s really what makes this news at all.

Headlines describing (but actually telling us very little about) Middleton’s experience of labour reinforce the assumption that giving birth vaginally is akin to giving birth perfectly — even though for some women and their babies, to do so would be damaging or even fatal. There’s a nasty judgement about women and their purpose embedded in there. To say that someone had a “perfect, uncomplicated birth” is one thing — it suggests good fortune, which is after all what that is — but a “perfect, natural birth” means something different. It implies other ways of giving birth cannot possibly measure up. That’s why a “perfect, uncomplicated birth” — or a “perfect, vaginal birth” — is no headline at all.  

I was fortunate enough to have two very good, uncomplicated vaginal births. Other women are not so lucky. I think headline writers should tread very carefully when reporting on these things. Then again, I imagine there’s no desire to tread carefully. Kate Middleton’s “perfect, natural” birth helps bolster the overall image of Kate Middleton as better than mere mortals.

I’m glad Kate Middleton had a good birth. I’m glad it went how she wanted it to. I’d want any woman to have a good experience of labour, although not all woman do. Sometimes little can be done to prevent this. One thing none of us needs to face, however, is the subtle implication, through cheap headlines, that “natural” and “perfect” go together. Giving birth is something to be proud of, not something to be ranked.