If you want a sense of the sheer pugnacity with which the Trump administration opposes reproductive health care, start here: The United States is now threatening trade war over breastfeeding. It’s an unprecedented and bizarre fracas, sparked by the same qualities that seem destined to define the Trump administration: Proud ignorance, pointless belligerence, and a hostile cluelessness about anything related to women’s bodies.
The source of this conflict is a resolution from the UN-affiliated World Health Assembly, which requires countries to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and “limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.” The resolution was in line with the current medical consensus, which says that breast milk provides the best possible nutrition to infants, and contains extra benefits like antibodies that help children’s developing immune systems. As for requiring accurate labels and marketing on baby food, well, that also seems like a non-controversial proposition. Who wants to trick mothers into giving sub-standard nutrition to their babies?
Ah, but you know who. Although the resolution was expected to pass without a hitch, the US delegation (a) demanded the removal of the language promoting breastfeeding, (b) refused to pass the resolution at all, and (c) reportedly threatened Ecuador with trade sanctions and withdrawal of military aid if it supported the resolution. The resolution only passed when Russia stepped up to back it.
There was no clear explanation for any of this. Caitlin Oakley of the US Department of Health and Human Services has said that “many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, [and] these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported.” That may be true, but it doesn’t adequately explain the choice to oppose the resolution. Trump has claimed that “we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty,” which is a flat misrepresentation of the resolution and its impact.
It’s certainly true that some mothers need to give their babies formula. I was one of them; my daughter had to stay in the NICU after she was born, and didn’t learn to nurse until she’d been home for a few weeks. But families that need to use formula were still free to use it; the resolution asked countries to encourage breastfeeding as the healthiest option, not to forbid the use of formula or penalize parents who had to use a different food source.
Nor does the explanation about “helping mothers” add up. Above and beyond any benefits to the baby, breastfeeding has concrete health benefits for mothers. Breastfeeding helps the body to heal from childbirth, by releasing oxytocin that helps to stop uterine bleeding and shrink the uterus back to its normal size and shape. It lowers the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. Some studies suggest that it can help to prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, and complications in future pregnancies….
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