Dr. Amy in breastfeeding debate on WBUR

Breastfeeding activists in my state, Massachusetts, are celebrating a ban on formula gift bags for new mothers.

That’s right: a group of women who will never use formula are patting themselves on the back for taking away a gift of free formula from women who might use it. And what do those who might use the formula think of the ban? Don’t be silly! No one asked them.

Who cares what those women think? Apparently women who aren’t wholeheartedly committed to exclusive breastfeeding aren’t even worthy of being included in the conversation. The fact that the lactivists are almost exclusively Western, white, privileged women and the women who they have deprived of free formula are much more likely to be women of color or poor women is simply an unfortunate coincidence.

No one asked those women, but I tried to speak for them when I participated in a debate on WBUR, the local National Public Radio affiliate. Dr. Bobbi Philipp, professor of pediatrics at director of the newborn nursery at Boston University School of Medicine, and one of the activists behind the ban.

You can listen to the debate below.

In preparation for the radio show I reviewed the meager existing literature on banning formula gift bags and didn’t find any evidence that it actually increases rates of breastfeeding. I did find, remarkably, that not a single study asked women whether the gift bags influence in any way their decision to breastfeed. This is consistent with a deeply disturbing set of assumptions that seems to be taken for granted among lactivists:

1. Women who have not committed to exclusive breastfeeding in advance must be manipulated to embark upon exclusive breastfeeding.

2. Women are not reflective individuals capable of making life decisions on their own.

3. Women are so shallow that they will be swayed in one direction or another by a free gift; therefore, their “betters” must make sure that they aren’t corrupted by free gifts.

4. Women’s opinions and desires are irrelevant so there is no point in asking those who are affected by a ban what they think of the ban.

5. These is no reason to ask women whether they want to breastfeed because there is no legitimate reason for not wanting to breastfeed.

6. Women are treated merely as instrumental. How breastfeeding impacts them as individuals with individual needs, desires and constraints is irrelevant.

I don’t think of myself as a naive person, but I still shocked that a group of privileged relatively well off white women have such obviously demeaning views of women other than themselves. Although I am an enthusiastic proponent of breastfeeding, and enthusiastically embraced breastfeeding my own children, I recognize that what worked for me and my family is not necessarily right for all other women and their families.

Rather than patting themselves on the back for engineering a ban on formula gifts bags, Massachusetts lactivists should be embarrassed by their modern day version of noblesse oblige. They are not the nobility of the mothering world and they are not obliged (or even entitled) to manipulate other women into making the “right” decision on infant feeding.