What’s the difference between promoting breastfeeding and promoting continuing unwanted pregnancies? Nothing.

22448979_s

Promoting breastfeeding is about policing women’s bodies in the exact same way that promoting continuing unwanted pregnancies is about policing women’s bodies.

It is a sad fact of history that men have spent a tremendous amount of time policing women’s bodies. And an even sadder fact is that women have often been the prime enforcers in this effort.

Consider female virginity. From shaming to chastity belts to genital mutilation, society has considered a woman’s virginity a husband’s property. It is a practice designed by men, for men, to preserve men’s privileges, yet women were often willing enablers.

Under the guise of what’s best for babies, lactivists feel entitled to tell women how to use their breasts.

You might think that the time of women as enforcers of policing other women’s bodies has passed. You’d be wrong. There are now entire movements devoted to policing women’s bodies: one of them is the anti-choice movement.

Another is the lactivist (breastfeeding advocacy) movement.

Consider:

Under the guise of what’s “best” for babies, anti-choice advocates feel entitled to tell other women how handle their pregnancies.

Under the guise of what’s “best” for babies, lactivists feel entitled to tell other women how to feed their infants.

Why do the same women who believe fervently that women have the right to control their own bodies, and that no one should be condemned for choosing abortion ignore the fact that women have the right to control their breasts and shame them for formula feeding?

Does the right to control one’s own body get expelled with the placenta? I don’t think so.

The benefits of breastfeeding are trivial as the chart below demonstrates.

breastfeeding and infant mortality

It’s a chart showing the impact of widely fluctuating breastfeeding initiation rates (70% dropping to 22% rising to 75%) in the last century on infant mortality. As you can see, breastfeeding has had no impact on the single most important measure of infant health.

Public health campaigns ought to be reserved for major public health risks and benefits. A public health campaign against smoking makes sense because lowering the smoking rate saves lots of lives. A public health campaign promoting vaccination makes sense because increasing vaccination rates saves lots of lives. A public health campaign to promote breastfeeding makes no sense because in first world countries the benefits are so small.

So why do we have public health campaigns to promote breastfeeding when the benefits are trivial?

Because there is an entire industry that makes money only when women breastfeed: the lactation consultant industry.

And because some women simply cannot mind their own business. Under the guise of what’s best for babies, they feel entitled to tell women how to use their breasts.

On Twitter, journalist Tara Haelle posted the image about breastfeeding on the left side. She promoted it as “normalizing” public breastfeeding and I’m confident that she is entirely sincere in that belief. But I don’t see that image as normalizing public breastfeeding; I see it as promoting breastfeeding as “best.”

Every drop don't abort

I created the image about pregnancy on the right to explain to Tara why I feel the way I do.

I suspect that many women would be offended by a group that felt itself entitled to comment on women’s pregnancies and whether or not they choose to continue them. The not-so-subtle hectoring at the bottom “every life counts” reflects the group’s religious beliefs and the belief that they are entitled to police pregnant women’s bodies.

I don’t think we would consider it “normalizing” pregnancy.

We should be equally offended by a group that feels itself entitled to comment on women’s infant feeding choices and how they are using their breasts. The not-so-subtle hectoring at the bottom that “every drop counts” reflects lactivists’ personal beliefs and the belief that they are entitled to police the bodies of new mothers.

What’s the difference between promoting breastfeeding as superior and promoting continuing unwanted pregnancies as superior to abortion?

Nothing that I can see.

  • Steph858

    Now, I’m by no means anti-abortion, but to play devil’s advocate:

    If you believe that a foetus has almost as much of a ‘right to life’ as a baby, then you would be more justified in ‘encouraging’ (read: shaming) a woman to continue with an unwanted pregnancy than a lactivist is in ‘encouraging’ a woman to breastfeed: an abortion will kill a foetus (in the view of an anti-abortionist); bottle-feeding won’t kill a baby.

  • LibrarianSarah

    I guess what bothers me about this is I don’t think that a woman breastfeeding in public is making this magnanimous win for women everywhere. Nor is a woman who is only comfortable breastfeeding in private (or gasp bottle feeding with formula) setting the sisterhood back hundreds of years. It would be like giving a thank you card for a woman wearing a skimpy outfit. It doesn’t matter if you are pervy man or an “empowered” woman; she isn’t doing it for you.

  • Liz Leyden

    A few years ago, my local free paper’s end-of-the-year edition included a bunch of Top 10 lists by staff. One was “Ten Reasons I’m Glad My Child Was Breastfed”, written by a man. One reason was “When my wife breastfeeds my baby in public, it forces people to confront their squeamishness about the human body.” Way to miss the point. The cards remind me of that. Does she have cards for bottle-feeders, too?

  • Allie P

    That card reads to me like it’s talking about nursing in public, not just nursing. There are way too many places that seek to shame, prohibit, or otherwise stop women from nursing their babies if that’s what they want to do. The cards are stupid, but I do think that the issues surrounding easier access to nursing for women who want to do so is real.

    • PrimaryCareDoc

      Then they should hand a card to the owner of the business where the woman was nursing. A “thank you for letting women nurse in public” card.

      No need to pat the little lady on the head and tell her she’s a good girl.

    • Amazed

      It does read “Nursing is becoming the norm”, though. I have a problem seeing it as anything else but endorsing breastfeeding as the best of the very best.

      And it’s incredibly insulting for the FF mothers present and patronizing for the BF mothers involved. What, are we at school with the Great Teacher praising our accomplishments?

      • Medwife

        Yeah. When I was breastfeeding my son I was not interested in a pat on the head. It just means you’re looking at me and judging my parenting and my body, neither of which are anyone’s business but mine.

  • Gatita

    It’s no more okay to hand this card to a stranger than it is to tell a woman on the street to smile. Both are intrusive and presumptive and disrespectful of a woman’s autonomy.

  • Tiffany Aching

    The exclusive breastfeeding obsession has a “purity” ring to it that I find deeply disturbing. Sometimes when you talk to these mothers you’d think they run an organic farm, not raise babies. As if the most important thing for a baby is the way you feed him. I read once very wise words on a parenting forum written in response to a young mother who was very upset because her pediatrician told her she should supplement : “Your baby doesn’t give a shit how he’s fed, as long as he is fed. Maybe you do, but that’s not the most important thing here”.

    • Cobalt

      Babies want to be fed adequately and loved unconditionally.

      I stole that from somewhere on Facebook, but it’s true anyway.

      • Tiffany Aching

        I also think that some of these women won’t admit that they breastfeed because they simply like it – which I can totally relate to, it can certainly be very satisfying to be physically able to feed your child -, which is completely ok as long as it doesn’t supersede the child’s needs (like breastfeeding long past the culturally accepted weaning age). But in a puritanic system it is more important to be morally superior than to be happy, and motherhood is supposed to be all about sacrifices, so liking it cannot be a good enough reason, you have to conjure imaginary benefits.

  • Amy

    I nursed both my kids till past age three. I teach high school. I can’t tell who was breastfed and who got formula, and I don’t care. That doesn’t mean I’m discouraging breastfeeding support, Jay-Gordon-I-Know-You’re-Reading-This, it means…..I don’t care.

    If a woman WANTS to breastfeed, and ASKS for help knowing I successfully breastfed my kids through a variety of difficult circumstances, I’m more than happy to help. If she doesn’t want to breastfeed, or does want to breastfeed and doesn’t want any help, then I’ll keep my mouth shut because it’s none of my damned business.

  • Roadstergal

    The more I think about it, the more sense this comparison makes. The underlying idea is that a woman’s body should be hers to use as she wishes, and if she desires to carry a pregnancy to term or BF, she should be free to, and if she wishes to terminate a pregnancy or not BF, she should be free to.

    Beyond that is what a woman’s body is physically capable of. If a woman simply can’t make enough milk or deliver it, she should be supported in feeding her baby safely however she can make work; if she simply can’t carry a pregnancy to term, she shouldn’t be forced to suffer health consequences by continuing a nonviable pregnancy due to abortion restrictions.

    And then there’s the murky area where a woman might want to BF/carry a pregnancy, but societal factors get in the way, and modifying those to be more supportive (legal support for better accommodation for pregnant women and new parents in the workplace, eg) is a societal net good.

    All just IMO.

    • Young CC Prof

      HELPING other women to breastfeed or to become a mother or to care for a child is an act compatible with feminism, whether you do it by advocating for a more supportive legal structure or directly on an individual basis. Telling women what they should or have to do isn’t compatible with feminism.

    • Cobalt

      The balance of forces between what we would choose for ourselves, how nature/biology can deny our preferences, and how we can positively support each other is a tricky one.

      One person’s high five is another’s slap in the face, and that’s what needs to change. Take all the controversy out, take the pressure (upward and downward) out, and aim for supporting personal choice/autonomy.

  • DaisyGrrl

    Looking at the breastfeeding initiation rates in your chart, the majority of baby boomers and older gen-xers were unlikely to even receive a drop of breast milk. Looking at pictures of those in power today, can anyone tell who was breastfed and who wasn’t?

    Were these lactivists breastfed as babies? If they’re in the above demographic, it’s just as likely that they weren’t.

  • KarenJJ

    It’s hardly “normalising” something when people are noticing, commenting, making a judgement about it (even a good one) and fetishising something….

  • Ellen Mary

    And let me point out that being shamed for your pregnancy doesn’t mean you don’t want it. Young women, poor women, unmarried women are all very capable of wanting pregnancies, even if they ‘shouldn’t’. And married, rich, & mature women can not want them.

    • fiftyfifty1

      What’s your point?

    • AllieFoyle

      Women in less than ideal circumstances can want their pregnancies? I would never have guessed.

  • Ellen Mary

    If we don’t feed in public because shaming, isn’t that along the same (but far less consequential) lines as aborting because of out of wedlock shaming? Out of wedlock shaming played into my decision to end first pregnancy (even though I was engaged) & that is the part I hate the most about it: that I let that BS get to me to the extent that I was willing to end a real life. I am actually inspired by women who are much younger & much more single that don’t give a F about society’s BS when facing a pregnancy that society does not accept.

    • AllieFoyle

      I know it’s hard to pass up the chance fire up the old anti-abortion propaganda generator, but do you think you could maybe try to understand and respond to the actual point? I know your heart goes pitter-pat every time you see any reference to abortion, but come on.

      And you get “inspired” by unplanned pregnancies to young, single women? Shame is not helpful, but neither is romanticizing the situation.

      • Ellen Mary

        It takes real courage to stand up to society’s shame when you are pregnant unconventionally (or really quite regularly but historically suppressed & discouraged) and I will always admire women who have that courage.

        • Tiffany Aching

          Well there are many things that are not wise nor advisable that take real courage. It shouldn’t be your only criterium to admire someone.

        • AllieFoyle

          It’s 2015, not 1955. Society’s shame is probably the least important consideration for a young single woman with an unplanned pregnancy.

    • Mattie

      I’m sorry that certain facets of society have made you feel guilty for making a decision that was right for you at the time. You should not feel guilty, you did nothing wrong. I wish I could respond to your comments on breastfeeding, but I don’t understand them.

      • Ellen Mary

        It wasn’t right for me. It was right for my BF, my parents, my BF’s parents, my extended family, my Nana. It was all wrapped up in getting married. It has everything to do with shame, our family has a long history of shaming unwed or not yet wed mothers. It wasn’t about what I really wanted, I wanted a baby. Women don’t exist in a vacuum, they don’t always do just what they want, they do what others expect from them sometimes.

        • AllieFoyle

          I’m right there with you on not shaming people, but will you stop pretending that since you made a choice you now regret, other women shouldn’t make that same choice? A woman with an unplanned pregnancy may be worried about far more serious issues than the sting of societal shame.

          • LibrarianSarah

            There is also the fact that a good percentage of women who have abortion are married or already have children but just for whatever reason can’t afford another one.

        • LibrarianSarah

          And yet you seem to be perfectly okay with shaming women into keeping a pregnancy that they do not want even to the extent to using the American legal system to do so. I’m sorry you felt so much pressure to have an abortion from your family and friends but it is ironic that you don’t see that you engage in the exact same behavior in reverse.

  • PrimaryCareDoc

    I would be so damn pissed if someone handed me a card like that after I fed my child in public (and I nursed in public with no shame). I don’t want people staring at me and making judgments, either positive or negative, on how I am feeding or otherwise parenting my children.

    • KarenJJ

      Oh this 🙂 If it was so “normal” why doesn’t anyone need to point it out and make a deal about it… Please just leave me alone!

      • Mattie

        I mean, the problem many women who don’t wish to nurse in public face is that they feel observed/judged/stared at, and handing out cards/praising women (like they’re children who have done a good job) obviously making your pleasure at breastfeeding known to them is that in order to do that you are observing, judging and looking at them…

        If we want to ‘normalise’ breastfeeding then we have to just let people who breastfeed get on with it, and stop discrimination but also not make it this huge deal.

        • PrimaryCareDoc

          You hit the nail on the head. I don’t need a “gold star” praising me for feeding my kid. Just leave me the hell alone.

        • Cobalt

          This is me, in ALL CAPS. What a card like this would say to me is “I’m a nosy judgemental asshole and I’ve been watching your breasts to see if they are adequate for my purposes”.

          EWWWWWW!!!

        • Tiffany Aching

          Honestly I never ever witnessed or heard any snarky comment when a woman was breastfeeding. The only stories I heard were from sanctimommies who I swear put themselves in very inconvenient and inappropriate situations (like demanding a chair and some space in a very crowded shop, or in very posh places where you’d go to the bathroom even to sneeze) to be able to brag about the day they were bashed for breastfeeding.

          • Young CC Prof

            Sometimes people are rude to breastfeeding mothers, and that’s not ok, but.

            The extreme lactivists NEED to be persecuted or looked down on for breastfeeding. This way, obviously, breastfeeders are an oppressed group in need of massive advocacy and special protection, safe spaces to talk about breastfeeding, etc. This may have been true 40 years ago, but now, breastfeeding is the higher-status choice. It’s endorsed by all relevant medical associations, most pregnant women will say that they plan to breastfeed, and it is a choice that higher-status women are more likely to make.

          • Guest

            I’ve fed three kids publicly and without covers (annoying, extra step, I’m lazy). I’ve had a few sideways glances and offers of the restroom, but no commands to cover up or leave. But I also live in a very crunchy area.

    • momofone

      Exactly. I don’t need a sticker, or a token, or frankly anyone’s opinion about what I’m doing or how I’m doing it. That card says way more about the giver than the receiver.

      • SporkParade

        I’m not sure what I would do if someone gave me a sticker for nursing in public. I hope I would have the presence of mind to say, “Yup, and I owe my entire breastfeeding relationship to formula supplementation.”

    • Tiffany Aching

      This is downright demeaning and very infantilizing.

  • Amy Tuteur, MD

    Oh, the irony!

    Dr. Jay Gordon is discussing this piece:

    • PrimaryCareDoc

      Hey, Dr. Jay, you know what else saves lives? Vaccines. You should try them sometime.

      • Roadstergal

        He actually Tweeted recently, in the midst of the SB277 debate, that mothers should be legally required to BF.

        • Sarah

          I love it when rich middle aged white men tell me what to do with my body.

        • Sarah

          Jay Gordon should be legally required to BF. We can induce lactation with round the clock pumping, off-label medication and lots of special cookies. Any man who thinks himself entitled to tell a woman what to do with her breasts ought to have to put his money (moobs?) where his mouth is.

          • PrimaryCareDoc

            And he has to do it while holding down a full-time job. He also needs to pay out of pocket for a hospital-grade pump and visits with a lactation consultant.

          • Sarah

            Hopefully he also gets mastitis.

        • Cobalt

          Only if men are legally required to also. They have nipples, male lactation isn’t unheard of, and there are all sorts of drugs and pumps and SNSs to prescribe if oxytocin isn’t enough.

        • Roadstergal
        • Tiffany Aching

          OMFG.

    • Mattie

      The American Academy of Paediatrics needs a better acronym for its fellows =P

      • PrimaryCareDoc

        Oh, I think the FAAP-ing acronym suits Dr. Jay (and his buddy Dr. Bob Sears) quite well.

        • Mattie

          Yes! But they can’t all be awful right?

      • Medwife

        The American College of Cardiology’s journal is JACC. There is a new name for the imaging subspecialty’s journal. IJACC. Catchy, no?

        • Mattie

          I believe a while ago I stumbled upon some god awful right-wing homophobia-pretending-to-care-about-society-and-the-children group whose acronym was CRAP (they didn’t use it, but I thought it was apt)

          • Medwife

            Reminds me of the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

    • Sarah

      Go on then Jay, since we know you’re reading, tell us exactly how this blog post discourages breastfeeding support? You don’t get to make a colossal leap like that without having to back it up.

      PS- keep your misogynistic ideology off my tits. kthxbai.

    • Chi

      There is a BIG difference between ‘supporting’ breastfeeding and guilting people into it because it’s what’s ‘best’. That same guilt (you’re a bad person!) is applied to women to coerce them into keeping unwanted pregnancies.

      Do these people seriously lack that level of reading comprehension? And one of them is a doctor. I wouldn’t let that quack anywhere near my kids if HE paid ME.

      SMH.

  • Amy M

    Every drop counts for what? My babies got a tiny bit of breastmilk for the first 4 weeks of life. At the beginning, maybe 50% of their diet was breastmilk, but they wanted more food as they grew, and my breasts didn’t keep up, so it steadily dropped, to 25% or less. At that point, I realized I was wasting my time, they had had some formula since Day 1, and were almost exclusively formula fed then—and they were fine. So, I stopped pumping and went to 100% formula. The only difference I noticed is that I was getting more sleep.

    Now they are going into 1st grade. They can read and do math at or above grade level. They had their share of minor illnesses when they were in daycare (colds, a few ear infections), which was expected, but now rarely get sick. They were never obese—hanging out in the 5th percentile or less since birth. If anything, they could stand to gain some weight. What would be different if they hadn’t had those few drops of breastmilk?

    Would their IQs be lower? Would they be 50lbs heavier? Are they guaranteed to be successful adults, because they had a bit of breastmilk and every drop counts? And what about me? I was exclusively formula fed—would I be a millionaire, or a nobel prize winner today, if only my mom had given me breastmilk? Is it shocking that I’ve lived almost 40yrs without committing any crimes or being on The Biggest Loser? Out of curiosity, I would like some lactivist to explain exactly how those drops of breastmilk they had, benefitted them, or conversely, how they are disadvantaged by having had mostly formula.

    I am convinced that since we are privileged, middle class, white Americans, my children would not have been any different had they eaten breastmilk instead of formula. If they are not successful adults, any number of factors could contribute to that, but what they ate during infancy, almost certainly will not.

    • fiftyfifty1

      “Every drop counts for what? ”

      Every drop counts in the ruthless calculus of Mommy Judging.

      • AllieFoyle

        But not really, because no amount is ever enough. EBF forever!

      • Smoochagator

        Ha! Awesome!

  • SporkParade

    The overall conclusion may be going a bit far, but it’s definitely true that many efforts to “normalize” breastfeeding are really about telling women that they have to breastfeed. A poem “normalizing” nursing in public ostensibly written in the style of Dr. Seuss has been making the rounds in my moms groups lately. And apparently it isn’t only important to support nursing in public because babies need to eat and mothers shouldn’t be forced to hide themselves away, but because breast is best and we are the superior mothers.

    • The message that “breast is best” and “every drop counts” subtly and not-so-subtly shames parents who can’t breastfeed or who are uninterested in doing so.

      • RMY

        Yeah, it’s basically saying “You don’t want the best for your child unless you breastfeed” completely ignoring that you can make “perfect” the enemy of good.

    • MegaMechameg

      Now I am curious. I love a good sanctimonious Seussian trainwreck.

      • SporkParade

        Ask and ye shall receive:

        To those who can be cruel and rude, Remind them breast’s the perfect food. I would never scoff or giggle, Roll my eyes or even wiggle! I would never be so crass or crude, I KNOW that this milk’s the perfect food! We make the right amount we need, The perfect temp for every feed. There’s no compare to milk from breast The perfect food, above the rest. Those nursing smiles are oh so sweet, Mommy milk is such a treat. Human milk just can’t be beat. – See more at: http://www.bellybelly.com.au/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-dr-seuss-style/#comment-16266

        • MegaMechaMeg

          That was a tiny piece of magic. I can’t wait to transcibe it in all caps on all of my friend’s facebook walls.

        • PrimaryCareDoc

          Wow. Wooooooowwww. I think I need a cigarette after reading that.

        • Roadstergal

          I think that whirring sound is Dr Seuss freewheeling in his grave.

          • SporkParade

            It does sound a little less like Dr. Seuss and a little more like chanting propaganda, I admit.

        • Amy M

          How about: To those who can be cruel or rude, just say “Mind your business, dude.” I would never scoff or giggle, roll my eyes or even wiggle! I would never be so crass or rude, I KNOW this kid gets perfect food. We mix the right amount we need, for a full stomach every feed. There’s no compare to milk of course, be it breast or bottle as the source. Those feeding smiles are oh so sweet, eating and snuggling are such treats. Happy baby can’t be beat.

        • canaduck

          Ugh, I feel downright queasy after reading that.