Thought about Breastfeeding and Civil Liberties

Breastfeeding is known for being an extremely politicized issue. Past decades introduced us to different interest groups advocating for and against the ideal of “Breast is best”. A recent book by Courtney Jung called ‘Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy’ describes how the ideal of breastfeeding became a focal point of consensus among conflicting political groups like environmentalists and capitalists, leftists and conservatives and many more. The book reveals troubling regulatory schemes which sanction non-breastfeeding moms by denying benefits and iron rich food for their babies. This pattern of body governance echoes Dorothy Roberts’ book ‘Killing the Black Body’ which described how procreation decisions made by poor-black-women, are constantly sanctioned and regulated by the state in order to achieve social objectives, for example, by conditioning welfare benefits in an installation of permanent contraceptives.

In Roberts’ book, a clear distinction is made with respect to the reproductive liberty of black and white women. The contraceptive pill, which symbolizes the emblem of reproductive freedom and is highly identified with the feminist movement, was the product of a scientific endeavor greatly motivated by conservative groups’ desire to control population through family planning schemes, historically targeting the fertility of poor black women. In a similar way, the ideal of “breast is best” has also been operating differently with respect to race and economic status. In Linda Blum’s bookAt the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in Contemporary United States’ she conducts interviews with women who didn’t nurse. She found that in contrast to white women who strove for outer respectability and experienced their lack of breastfeeding as a failure to conform with the breastfeeding imperative, black women emphasized their use in feeding instruments as significant for their independence which was highly evaluated. Accordingly, statistics show generally lower breastfeeding rates among black women in the US.

But it’s not just breastfeeding that is being politicized, but also the distribution of human milk. Modern technological developments enable women to express and store their milk, and often accumulating more than they need. Accordingly, there has been a proliferation of different forums intended to match breast-milk donors/sellers with babies and infants in need. Some forums are informal like virtual mommy groups where women occasionally offer spare frozen milk; some are more institutionalized – like the non-profit Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) which collects donations, pasteurizes and facilitates their distribution; or even for-profit corporations which supply breast-milk for pay. One example of such a company is Medolac, which was recently involved in a public scandal due to an initiative meant to encourage Detroit mothers to breastfeed their own children, by paying them for any ‘donations’ they produce. Local groups including the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association wrote an open letter expressing deep doubts about the true motivation behind the initiative. It was said to target low-income African American women who need the money to support their family, so that the result would be the exact opposite from the initiative’s stated goal. Because the poorest women are likely to sell all of their milk, their babies are not likely to enjoy it, and their ‘donations’ would be priced and sold to non-Detroit purchasers instead of going to the local premature infants and babies who desperately need it. After this episode, state representative Erika Geiss drafted a bill setting up safety guidelines for purchasing breast milk by companies and prioritizing its distribution, after sufficiently fulfilling the needs of the nursing mom’s baby.

Roberts promoted the idea of ‘reproductive autonomy’ calling to protect the liberty of groups who are constantly targeted for their procreation decisions. Can we speak about a parallel concept of ‘breastfeeding autonomy’ for women whose nursing decisions are constantly judged and penalized? The metaphors used in this debate are fascinating. Detroit moms producing milk for pay were analogized to milk producing cows in a farm, breast-milk is also conceptualize in terms of a highly expensive commodity often called “liquid gold”, or in medical terminology when given the traits and status of “a medicine”. Perhaps these metaphors could serve us in future thinking about how different dilemmas in distributing human milk could be framed in the legal context. For example, if breast milk is liquid gold, then are women who extract it its’ owners? If breast milk is like medicine, then are breast milk commercial suppliers like pharmaceutical companies? Should breast milk be understood as a natural resource which belongs to a specific community?  Big questions and new dilemmas to an age-old practice.

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