“Donald Trump hates breastfeeding! How can he possibly get any worse?”
If you’re a young mother on social media, you’re likely to have seen this sentiment earlier this month when reports circulated about the administration’s decision to oppose an Ecuadorian resolution at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, a meeting of the World Health Organization.
But as usual, especially when the Trump administration is concerned, there was more to the story. And, as usual, especially when the Trump administration is concerned, the “more” wasn’t reported by the mainstream media.
In its reporting on the meeting, the New York Times cited the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s opposition as follows: “Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.”
In their caption to a photo of a baby drinking formula the Times explained “A Brooklyn mother unable to nurse fed her child donated breast milk. The $70 billion infant formula industry has seen sales flatten in wealthy countries in recent years.”
At no point in their reporting was proof, in the form of on- or off-the-record statements, provided that the Trump administration had taken into account the position of formula companies, or evidence that formula companies had lobbied the Trump administration due to lagging American sales.
What actually happened? The Times rightly reported on the what, but not why: “American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to ‘protect, promote and support breastfeeding’ and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.”
While “breast is best” sounds great in theory, in practice restricting access to baby formula has dangerous consequences.
In an op-ed in the New York Post, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Agency for International Development explained, “In particular, the guidance recommends that countries impose stringent new regulations on the marketing of any commercially produced foods suggested for children between 6 months and 3 years old. Such restrictions, in our view, prevent parents from having access to all the factual information they might need. The guidance even advocates for the prohibition of free samples of formula — including in countries and conflict zones where supplies of formula could help save babies’ lives.”
While fully acknowledging that “breast is best” these officials also realize that even under the most optimal conditions, breastfeeding can be difficult. When you factor in malnutrition and stress in the developing world and in conflict areas, access to formula can mean the difference between life and death.
Two sources familiar with the negotiations in Geneva explained further why the United States was reticent to agree to the language surrounding breastfeeding as presented by Ecuador. In diplomatic terms, the phrase “protect” would have the connotation that breastfeeding is the policy to the exclusion of everything else. Further, these sources said that the end goal for the representative from Ecuador was to make formula by prescription only; even in areas ravaged by famine and war.
Sadly, the Ecuadorian minister’s pipedream of the WHO restricting formula in order to “protect” breastfeeding has already been reality in Iraq. And while “breast is best” sounds great in theory, in practice restricting access to baby formula has dangerous consequences.
Writing for CNN two years ago Gayle Lemmon explained, ‘The malnutrition we see here is primarily due to the scarcity of infant formula," [Doctors Without Borders' Iraq country director Manuel] Lannaud wrote. ‘International organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) promote breastfeeding ... and provide infant formula, but only by prescription. We believe that distributing infant formula in a conflict situation like Iraq is the only way to avoid children having to be hospitalized for malnutrition."
There is a tragic history of formula companies manipulating women in the third world in order to get them hooked on formula, thereby disrupting their milk supply; but the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. While we know the science indicates that breastmilk is best, there are any number of extenuating circumstances for women in the developed and developing world that makes feeding babies formula more desirable. Mothers are responsible with raising their children, and thus, should be trusted to decide how to best feed them without requiring a prescription to do so.
Why did officials like this Ecuadorian health minister try to make access to formula so difficult in the first place? It turns out, it wasn’t based on the science behind breastfeeding, but instead, the Western infatuation with the “breast is best” mantra. According to those familiar with the negotiations, the Ecuadorian minister wanted to force women to breastfeed because their babies were “less likely to start a war, because they feel their mother’s love through their breast milk.”
Thankfully, American officials in Geneva prioritized promoting actual science behind nutrition instead of this bohemian perspective on world peace.