Why is it that policy proposals that target women’s choices always spring from the mind of a man? A 2014 article published inexplicably in the Guardian’s “News” section is a case in point. In the “expert” opinion piece (which has recently churned to the surface of the internet after a few years of deserved obscurity), a guy named Eric Assadourian argues that baby formula should be treated as a controlled substance worldwide. Assadourian works as something called a “Transforming Cultures project director” at the sustainability research NGO Worldwatch Institute. We suppose he was simply trying to transform our culture. Assadourian calls for a global Framework Convention on Formula Control, which would make formula available only by prescription. The goal is to make every mother in the world breastfeed their babies, no matter how she feels about it. For the record, Assadourian’s risible policy is modeled on the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which shows you what he really thinks about baby formula.
If Assadourian could stop mansplaining motherhood for a hot second, he might learn that women generally don’t choose formula over breast milk because they hate their babies.
By some estimates, 1 in 1,000 new moms is physically unable to produce breast milk, a condition known as mammary hypoplasia. That might not sound like a lot, but considering that nearly 4 million infants were born in the U.S. in 2010 (the last year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published statistics), that’s 4,000 moms who probably don’t want to be publicly shamed for a health problem that they can’t control. Then there’s postpartum depression, which affects 1 in 7 women who give birth, by the American Psychological Association’s count. If Assadourian wants to tell a mom with a serious mood disorder that she should snap out of it and get pumping, what can we say? (If you’re struggling with postpartum depression or think you might be, help is available. Call the Postpartum Support International hotline at 800-944-4PPD. That’s 800-944-4773.) Men raise infants alone, too. Do we really want to ask them to call in a prescription every week to keep their babies fed?
Finally, social conditions predict the likelihood of exclusive breastfeeding with remarkable consistency.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 21 percent of women who earn six times the poverty line breastfeed for six months after giving birth. Only 12 percent of mothers below the poverty line reach that same milestone. The reasons for the disparity are as dismaying as they are familiar. Low-income moms have to return to work much sooner than their wealthier counterparts. The United States still doesn’t have laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave, and lower-paying jobs are far less likely to offer this benefit. Women who aren’t wealthy often lack the freedom to stop what they’re doing and breastfeed their baby 10 to 12 times a day. Placing an added burden on these women could amount to class discrimination. As Jeanne Sager writes on Cafemom, “Whether you love formula companies or hate them, breast milk is neither free nor available to all mothers. All the other aforementioned issues that keep moms from breastfeeding remain, and they’re not going away anytime soon.” How many times do we have to say it? Her body, her choice.