Is breastmilk food?

That’s a bizarre question. Obviously breastmilk is food. Why would anyone say otherwise? To get a tax-break, of course.

Lactivists are angry that the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that breastfeeding is not a form of medical care and therefore, breastfeeding supplies such as pumps cannot be purchased with money from tax sheltered health accounts.

According to an article in today’s New York Times, Breast Pumps Lack Tax-Sheltered Status:

Denture wearers will get a tax break on the cost of adhesives to keep their false teeth in place. So will acne sufferers who buy pimple creams.

People whose children have severe allergies might even be allowed the break for replacing grass with artificial turf since it could be considered a medical expense.

But nursing mothers will not be allowed to use their tax-sheltered health care accounts to pay for breast pumps and other supplies.

Why? Because the IRS considers breastmilk to be food, not medical care.

This is nothing new. Breastfeeding supplies have never qualified as medical care, but lactivists and pediatricians were advocating for a change in the rules.

Despite a growing body of research indicating that the antibodies passed from mother to child in breast milk could reduce disease among infants — including one recent study that found it could prevent the premature death of 900 babies a year [debunked here] — the I.R.S. has denied a request from the American Academy of Pediatrics to reclassify breast-feeding costs as a medical care expense.

Perhaps lactivists overreached by dramatically inflating the cost of breastfeeding supplies:

… The cost of buying or renting a breast pump and the various accessories needed to store milk runs about $500 to $1,000 for most mothers over the course of a year, according to the United States Breastfeeding Committee, a nonprofit advocacy group.

That might have been true two decades ago when my oldest children were born, but it is a gross exaggeration now. State of the art double electric breast pumps can run $300 or more, but electric breast pumps can be purchased for under $100 and manual pumping supplies for less.

But the IRS’ stated reason for denying tax sheltered status is the characteristic enthusiastically embraced by lactivists themselves: breastfeeding is natural.

I.R.S. officials say they consider breast milk a food that can promote good health, the same way that eating citrus fruit can prevent scurvy. But because the I.R.S. code considers nutrition a necessity rather than a medical condition, the agency’s analysts view the cost of breast pumps, bottles and pads as no more deserving of a tax break than an orange juicer.

Where does that leave lactivists and breastfeeding mothers? It leaves them free to push for tax breaks for breastfeeding on the grounds that it is a behavior we wish to encourage and we promote tax breaks for all sorts of behaviors we wish to encourage (replacing refrigerators with more energy efficient models, rewarding retirement planning, etc). But pretending that breastfeeding is medical care is not going to work.