Is Breastfeeding a Legal Right? Civil Right? Or a Social Responsibility?

“What kind of a society raises its children on food that will shorten their lives?” I dug this quote up one day while looking for examples of other public health crises that have benefited from celebrity leadership.  Turns out they were words first spoken in connection with Farm Aid, but they so perfectly capture the reason why we need a popular cause for healthy infant feeding, that it’s now plastered to my wall.

We are what we eat.  The food we are given as infants, children and adults, can do one of three things:  (1) help us to thrive, (2) sustain us or (3) jeopardize our health.  Unfortunately, most of the commercial food supply in the U.S., including infant formula, falls into the latter two categories.  And the consequences are horrendous — America spends $2.7 trillion each year on health care costs trying to stop a rising tide of epidemic noncommunicable illness — diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease,  Crohn’s disease just to name a few.  And we are no healthier for it; our mortality rank is 50th in the world, our Infant Mortality rate is 41st, and our Maternal Mortality rate is 50th –WAY behind other developed nations.  For many Americans who don’t die, living with disease and chronic suffering has become the NORM.  We are one of the unhealthiest populations on the planet despite our spectacular spending on “health care.” READ: Americans Under 50.  Read: The Cracks in the Foundation & The First Food. 

Call me crazy, but the goal last time I checked, was not just to grow or survive, but to flourish and thrive.  What parent doesn’t want the latter option — for their babies to reach their optimal potential health, physically and emotionally, for a lifetime?

None.  That’s right.  None.  Show me the right-minded mother who wants to see her child’s health compromised by the food she puts in its mouth.  She doesn’t exist.  But show me the mother who makes feeding decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information, or the mother who chooses breastfeeding but is Booby-Trapped by poor care, advice and support from the medical and legal system and her community and employer and is forced to formula feed by default, or the mother who doesn’t want to, or can’t breastfeed, but is not given the option of using the next best substitute, donor human milk — she exists, by the millions each year.

savethechildrenbfreportWhich is why ‘What your infant is having for dinner’ is not a topic over which moms, businesses or even politicians should be arguing.  The debate is over and the evidence is clear:  Breastfeeding, followed next in order of preference by pumping or donor milk, is the undisputed “first food” and the foundation of human health and thriving.   Yes, infant formula has a place and purpose when breastfeeding or donor milk is not feasible (and believe us, sometimes it really is not and we understand!  Read: It’s Not Just About Breastfeeding.) But breastfeeding (and human milk) is first on the list because it is a highly cost-effective way to help PREVENT illness – in both baby and mother, long and short term. Period. If more mothers were supported to reach their personal breastfeeding goals, it would slash billions from the nation’s health care burden, (Read:  $13 Billion for Breastfeeding), and it would save and improves lives.  Read: Save the Children’s  Report.

Given our poor collective health and economy, the only question on the table should be how can we as a society pull together to see to it that as many moms as possible are no longer being Booby-Trapped and get the full panoply of support that is required to help them succeed at breastfeeding– at birth, at home, in the workplace, and in public?   We should be rolling out the red carpet for moms for paying it forward for us all, we should be throwing open every door for them and thanking them, definitely not shaming them.  

To be sure, we need a national law that protects a woman’s right to breastfeed and have access to donor milk.  This law could be passed as an amendment to existing federal law e.g., the Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or the American With Disabilities Act, or as a stand-alone. Pipedream?  Maybe.  But worth fighting for.   It is extremely time-consuming to fight to protect mothers and babies on a state level, 50 times over.  Moms across the country are organizing under our Take Action wing and other groups to amend laws to make this a reality.  Read:  Texas Moms Fight for Better Breastfeeding Law.

But it’s going to take more than laws to change consumer attitudes and create the kind of total sea change in the way we view and support breastfeeding and moms that we so desperately need. If that’s all that it took, then decades after being told about the health benefits of eating more vegetables, most Americans would be heeding that standard — we still don’t eat enough.  And legislation making sexual harassment a form of discrimination would have sufficed to eradicate it from our work spaces — it still takes oodles of employee training, education, and cultural indoctrination to reset behavioral norms.

Since we entered the breastfeeding conversation in 2007, Best for Babes has consistently framed breastfeeding as more than a question of the legal right to nurse in public or even as a reproductive right.  As a behavior that benefits our collective and individual welfare, breastfeeding is also a shared responsibility, and as such, a human and a civil right.  Looking at breastfeeding through the human rights lens helps us go beyond the “legal” issue and get to the moral issue that will drive systemic and cultural change:  human milk is so precious and beneficial to us all, that helping moms to breastfeed or have access to donor milk, if needed, is more appropriately a question of social responsibility –like preventing forest fires, educating children, or fighting poverty, hunger and disease.  

By definition, human rights (and its subclass of civil rights) protect our inalienable rights to dignity, safety, health and life, and to be treated fairly and as equals.  Protecting a mom’s basic human right to nourish her baby optimally, and a baby’s basic human right to be nourished optimally, falls squarely within those parameters.  Seeing breastfeeding as a human rights issue for children is not a novel concept.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international treaty declaring eating a human right for a child.  Not surprisingly, the U.S. along with Somalia, are the only countries who have not signed on.

Our mother’s and babies should not be discriminated against for exercising their human and instinctive right to breastfeed.  And yet, as our Nursing In Public Harassment Hotline proves, daily and in droves, moms are being harassed and discriminated against for following an innate and prescribed behavior that will help ensure their and her baby’s best health. 

Civil rights are also intended to guard against infringements by both government and the private sector that compromise an individual’s freedom of thought and choice.  In the current climate, that freedom is being severely compromised.   The infant feeding industry has been hijacked by big business (Big Formula) for the benefit of profit and shareholders. Their predatory and unfair marketing practices rob moms of the freedom to make an informed feeding decision and are largely responsible for the inordinate number of breastfeeding failures. Study after study points to the corrosive effect of formula marketing on breastfeeding initiation and success. Read: the Save the Children Report citing unfair formula marketing as a major barrier to breastfeeding.  Read: What is the WHO-Code?  And we will emphasize here again, that it is not formula per se, but the aggressive marketing of formula that subverts and sabotages breastfeeding that is the problem.

Getting back to framing breastfeeding as a civil liberty, formula manufacturers love to ring the Freedom of Choice bell and co-opt that argument to fit their bill.  Big Formula spends billions per year to perpetuate a marketing fiction to convince moms that choosing their product is a testimony to the exercise of that freedom.  Read: Defeating the Formula Death Star. They want moms to believe that formula-feeding is about exercising personal choice, about which a new mom shouldn’t feel guilty, and over which they emerge as her new “BFF” and “savior.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.  True “friends” don’t wreck your chances of succeeding at something, throw their arm around you when you predictably fail, tell you not to feel guilty — “after all you tried Sweetie,” then take your money with the other.  The formula industry plays the guilt card  like Yo Yo Ma plays a Bach Cello Suite and their rewards are equally grand.  The “we are here for you mom” campaign yields approximately $8-$10 billion per year profit.  Breastfeeding advocates, educators, scientists, and practitioners, make next to nothing when moms achieve their personal goals.  We can attest to that personally.

So what kind of a society are we?  America is a country that prides itself on liberty and freedom and change and great reversals of course to fulfill those promises –cue the Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movements.  We can do this!  Let’s make healthy food for infants, children and adults top of our national priority list — a shared responsibility for the betterment of our individual and collective health –and precipitate our laws, policies, and norms to shift to accommodate our shared goal.  Let’s no longer seek to ostracize mothers who breastfeed but rather embrace, cheer and celebrate them!  Let’s no longer longer tolerate infringements on our personal freedoms and on our personal health for the benefit of big business.  Imagine the laws and the infrastructure that might follow that paradigm shift — paid parental leave?  On-site daycare? Routine post-partum home visits by qualified lactation professionals covered by all insurance?  Greater access to breastfeeding care for low-income and minority women? More affordable and accessible healthy foods?  These practices are already standard in many countries that score high on health indices and on quality of life indices.  Reframing breastfeeding as a social responsibility — not just a right — will help to deliver the change we need. What are we waiting for? 

Do you think breastfeeding is a social responsibility and a human right?

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47 Comments | Last revised on 04/03/2013

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