Trump’s Opposition to Breastfeeding Is Just Another Part of the Plan to Deny Women Their Rights


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.

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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.

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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. To quote a 2010 Scientific American article, “even if technicians could develop a better food for infants, researchers are now realizing that skipping the lactation phase would be problematic for mothers’ health.” Nursing is not just a parenting decision; it’s after-care. Bodies that have given birth are designed to recover by lactating, and when that process is interrupted, their health suffers.

Breastfeeding access is a reproductive rights and women’s health issue — no different than birth control access, abortion, or affordable pre-natal care.

This makes breastfeeding access a reproductive rights and women’s health issue — no different than birth control access, abortion, or affordable pre-natal care. Any country that genuinely cared about the health of women (and childbearing trans people) would be making it easier for people to breastfeed. But the U.S. is not that country. And the Trump administration — which has slapped a gag rule on Planned Parenthood, slashed family planning programs, and is now set to overturn Roe v. Wade with its next SCOTUS pick — is bad on all those other parts of reproductive health as well.

That Trump appears to oppose breastfeeding should come as no surprise; this is, after all, a man who reportedly called a woman “disgusting” and ran out of the room in a fit of rage because she’d mentioned using her lunch break to pump milk. Nor is this even his first offense: The GOP has worked relentlessly to slash or gut the ACA, which facilitates breastfeeding by requiring employers to provide lactation breaks and providing pregnant people with free or low-cost breast pumps. Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, is a breastfeeding fan; in her 2017 memoir, she wrote that “[one] of the hardest things about returning to work is trying to continue breastfeeding and watching your milk supply plummet.” But, as always, Ivanka is keeping the things she likes for Ivanka.

This is all part of a broader tapestry, which includes attacks on pre-natal care, birth control, abortion, and every other part of reproductive health. Under Trump, the U.S. government exhibits an aggressive lack of knowledge about life with a uterus; it makes policy with seemingly no understanding of what women and trans people need to be healthy, and denies them crucial services. In the process, safe, healthy motherhood has become a luxury item.

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Jean-Laurent Mosnier – The Young Mother

Which raises the question of whose interests the U.S. opposition to breastfeeding does serve. That Trump mentioned mothers in “poverty” is probably not an accident; breastfeeding is important to families, not just because it’s healthy, but because it is free. Formula costs about $50 per month, and potentially more; for working-class and poor families, it can be crucial to make a baby’s milk, rather than buy it.

But this does make breastfeeding inconvenient for companies that sell baby food. And, though the Times — which broke the news of the fight over breastfeeding — was careful to specify that there was “no direct evidence” that baby food manufacturers played a role in U.S. decision-making, it is also true that lobbyists from those corporations were present at the WHA, and that having a powerful country throwing its weight around to defend formula feeding certainly served their interests.

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Again: If you’d tried to script an allegory about what’s wrong with the Trump administration’s reproductive health policy, you could not have come up with a better plot twist. Going on the offensive over breastfeeding is, obviously, an attack on mothers’ health. It’s an expression of an underlying misogyny; pregnancy and childbirth are being treated like inconveniences, rather than, you know, the only way to ensure the survival of the species. But it’s also a statement about who matters: The people who make breast milk, or the corporations that can only survive by selling an imitation of that milk back to them. Opposing women’s health care doesn’t just make safe, supported motherhood out of reach for most women, it actively gives aid to those who would exploit them.

The World Health fracas is bizarre, stupid, and pointlessly aggressive. But this is not to say that it’s meaningless. It says everything you need to know about what women count for in Trump’s world.



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