Breastfeeding is nearly as contentious as abortion and for the same reason


Welcome to the thousands of new readers who have visited the blog over the past few days. You’ve been drawn by the posts on breastfeeding in which I’ve attempted to correct the massive amount of misinformation that passes for “education” on the topic.

On Sunday (New US breastfeeding policy, adopted for the wrong reasons, will almost certainly save lives) I wrote about the fact that Trump, though generally wrong about everything, is right to oppose the draconian WHO regulations around infant formula.

On Monday (What the breastfeeding literature REALLY shows) I provided a summary of major papers published in the breastfeeding literature in the past 2 years. Collectively they show that insufficient breastmilk is common (up to 15% of first time mothers), formula supplementation makes successful breastfeeding more likely, pacifiers prevent SIDS and extended skin to skin contact leads to babies falling from their mothers’ hospital beds or suffocating while in them. Most importantly, the myriad purported benefits of breastfeeding actually come from the higher socio-economic status of breastfeeding mothers, not breastfeeding itself.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactivism, like anti-choice activism, isn’t about babies; it’s about controlling women’s bodies.[/pullquote]

On Tuesday (The conventional wisdom about breastfeeding is DEAD wrong!) I wrote about the ways in which the benefits of breastfeeding have become conventional wisdom and how conventional wisdom is often wrong.

Yesterday (Finally, data on lives saved each year by breastfeeding: only 8% of WHO claim!) I showed that the WHO’s central claim about breastfeeding, that it could save more than 800,000 lives each year is based on a faulty mathematical model and is thoroughly undercut by the actual evidence. At its peak, formula use in developing countries resulted in 65,000 deaths per year, ENTIRELY due to contaminated water, not formula itself. That peak occurred in 1981. Since then according to Paul Gertler whose research established the 65,000 peak death toll:

…[T]he annual death toll has dropped to about 25,000, driven by improved access to clean water in the Southern Hemisphere.

That’s only 3% of the total claimed by the WHO.

So why have professional lactivists, including those at the WHO, grossly exaggerated the benefits of breastfeeding, ignored the risks, massively inflated the number of lives that could be saved and clung to the conventional wisdom long after it had been disproven? Their tactics have a lot in common with those of anti-choice activists because neither breastfeeding nor abortion is about babies. This is about controlling women’s bodies.

Although La Leche League, the original and premier lactivist organization has carefully scrubbed their website of the fact, it was a religion inflected organization originally founded by seven traditionalist Catholic women designed to keep other women out of the workforce by convincing them to breastfeed.

In the book La Leche League: At the Crossroads of Medicine, Feminism, and Religion, Jule DeJager Ward explains that the La Leche League was:

…founded in 1956 by a group of Catholic mothers who sought to mediate in a comprehensive way between the family and the world of modern technological medicine…

[A] central characteristic of La Leche League’s ideology is that it was born of Catholic moral discourse on family life … The League has very strong convictions about the needs of families. These convictions are the normative heart of its narrative… The League’s presentations and literature carry a strong suggestion that breast feeding is obligatory. Their message is simple: Nature intended mothers to nurse their babies; therefore, mothers ought to nurse…

The idealization of motherhood reflects the place of Mary in Catholic popular devotion…

The League’s answer to the question “What should mothers do” is grounded in … the original faith community of its founders.

For those women, the contents of their Catholic faith and the existential question of motherhood are interdependent…

From its very inception lactivism has been about policing women through control of their bodies. The medical justifications were embroidered on later to conceal the religious goal.

From its founding in the late 1950’s through the 1970’s, LLL was an organization that depended entirely on volunteers for peer to peer teaching of breastfeeding. Two things happened in the early 1980’s to propel LLL to its current status as arbiter of and nexus for all things breastfeeding.

First, breastfeeding was monetized. LLL spun off a variety of organizations to create, educate and monitor an entirely new profession: lactation consultant. Though LLL continued to give away breastfeeding information for free, its daughter organizations worked aggressively to install lactation consultants in hospitals, doctors offices and public health organizations. The monetization of breastfeeding led inexorably to the moralization of breastfeeding. In an effort to create ever more employment opportunities for lactation consultants, ever more “benefits” were conjured for breastfeeding and ever more pressure was applied to women culminating in the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, a program to aggressively promote breastfeeding to new mothers while they were hospitalized after birth.

Second, these efforts dovetailed with moral outrage over Nestle’s behavior in Africa. In an effort to improve market share Nestle convinced women to abandon breastfeeding for the convenience of formula, deliberately ignoring the fact that many did not have access to clean water. LLL became an advisor to the WHO in creating a response which involved aggressive promotion of breastfeeding. It was at this point that lactivism devolved into a campaign against formula even though there was no evidence that it was formula itself that had caused the problem.

Nestle’s corporate malfeasance is so central to breastfeeding promotion that to this day, more than 30 years after the fact, outrage against Nestle remains front and center in every lactivist effort centered on demonizing formula, which is just about every lactivist effort.

But make no mistake, lactivist organizations have never dropped their original commitment to controlling women by policing their bodies.

Lactivism is not about babies since the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial in countries with access to clean water.

In truth, nearly all the claimed benefits of breastfeeding are based on studies that are weak, conflicting and riddled with confounding variables. When corrected for confounders like maternal education and socio-economic status, the only benefits that remain are an 8% decrease in the risk of colds and an 8% decrease in episodes of diarrheal illness across the entire population of infants in the first year. In other words, the vast majority of infants will experience no demonstrable benefit from breastfeeding.

Lactivism is not about saving babies lives since, with the small exception of extremely premature infants, breastfeeding DOESN’T save lives in industrialized countries.

Lactivism isn’t about following the scientific evidence since most efforts, like the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, IGNORE the scientific evidence about the benefits of formula supplementation and pacifiers and ignore the rising number of breastfeeding casualties: the tens of thousands of babies readmitted to the hospital each year for dehydration and other breastfeeding complications.

Lactivism isn’t about saving money since any potential healthcare savings are dwarfed by the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year to hospitalize babies suffering breastfeeding complications and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in liability payments for babies’ brain injuries and deaths as a result of those complications.

Lactivism is about controlling women through policing their bodies, imposing a restrictive view of motherhood on women in order force them back into the home. It’s about dictating to women how they should use their bodies, pressuring them to use their bodies in approved ways, and lying to them to convince them to knuckle under.

Is breastfeeding a good thing?

It can be. I breastfed four children (all adults now). They were fat, happy babies and I enjoyed it and was able to combine it with an extremely demanding job. But I have no illusions that it improved the health or intelligence of my children or my relationship to them.

In my view, given the facts about breastfeeding, our approach to breastfeeding ought to be the same as our approach to abortion:

HER baby, HER body, HER choice …

Anything else is an attempt to control women by controlling their bodies.