This past spring, the United Nations-affiliated World Health Organization was apparently the setting for a previously unthinkable battle between the United States and basically the rest of the world. And just what was the cause of this major showdown? Global epidemics, perhaps? No: The fight was over a resolution supporting the use of breast milk. Yes, really.
According to The New York Times, the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly worked hard to dilute a resolution which was designed to highlight the importance of breastfeeding while attempting to fight misleading attempts to sell formula. But the U.S. delegation was so determined to thwart the resolution that they threatened retribution — specifically, on trade and military aid to Ecuador — against other countries to get them to drop their support of the resolution.
Go ahead: Take a moment to wrap your head around all of this.
In the end, the Russians ultimately stepped in to introduce the measure, and the U.S. largely backed down. “We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, told The New York Times. “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health.”
The United States’ spin was that sure, maybe it looked bad, but it was about women’s rights — that the issues under debate “were not about whether one supports breastfeeding,” according to a Department of Health and Human Services statement. “The United States was fighting to protect women’s abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies. Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies.”
OK, for the record: If formula feeding is what works best for you and/or your baby, great. Honestly. I’m not here to judge. But, also, I’m not one with enough power to entice the government to do a 180 on a longstanding (and, let’s face it, pretty benign) policy. Want to know who is? Meet Big Formula, itself an offshoot of Big Dairy.
When it comes to infants’ health around the globe, it seems the United States decided to side with the $70 billion infant formula industry. Let’s get real: to say that such a grandiose and deliberate step away from breastfeeding is actually good for women? That, my friends, is basically the textbook definition of “chutzpah.” Because what’s good for women is to have control over the choices they make, and as much knowledge as possible to make a well-informed decision.
As New School professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela wrote on Facebook, “This stigmatization [of women who don’t breastfeed] is a very real problem in affluent places where women have choices as to how to feed their kids and are shamed for choosing formula, but arguably far less of a problem in global regions where children are dying of malnutrition and would benefit quite a lot from breastfeeding.”
Because the facts are clear: A 2016 study published by medical journal The Lancet said breastfeeding could save the lives of 823,000 children and 20,000 mothers EACH YEAR. And if that isn’t enough of a mind-blowing fact for you: According to the same study, universal breastfeeding could save $300 billion (!!!!) in reduced health care costs.
To be clear on my perspective: I am no personal fan of breastfeeding. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, it stressed me out beyond belief for a variety of reasons, and I did it purely out of a sense of obligation to my children’s health. I’ve admitted to being relieved when my babies were weaned. But, that being said, I am in that “first world” category of women — a distinct minority — who had the ability to make a choice when it came to feeding my infants. I was privileged in that I could have chosen either breastfeeding or formula, but instead chose to supplement breastfeeding with formula. Plus, I was able to breastfeed because of flexible work and childcare options — something that many women don’t have. But the resolution the U.S. was trying to block had nothing to do with things like maternity leave or access to breast pumps. It simply said that countries should limit the misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes, and encourage support of breastfeeding.
And amen to that. Because, regardless of my own personal experience with breastfeeding (six times, let’s reiterate that point), I believe it is crucial and incumbent upon countries, certainly my own, to communicate their unequivocal support of women: support of breastfeeding and support of clear and accurate marketing of formula. So underneath the weird Big Formula surface of the U.S.’s bull in a china shop tactics, there’s an undercurrent which, in the right light, could easily be seen as misogyny. That’s because — spoiler alert! — it is.
Women need to be able to make informed choices for their own health and the health of their children. When it comes to feeding babies, that could mean breastfeeding for years, or being able to choose formula that is accurately labeled with clear and true information. Any mother of any newborn will have to choose among these two options — it’s inevitable, and it’s a biggie. And yet, the U.S. delegation basically deemed this decision as unimportant.
Mothers, we should be pretty mad right now. How do we channel this anger, besides at the ballot box? By talking about it — whether we are breastfeeding or not; and whether we have babies or not — and recognizing our responsibilities not only to each other, but to the next generation.