Thursday, June 9, 2011

Michelle Obama & The "Choice" to Breastfeed

Michelle Obama is back in the news today after again bringing up supporting breastfeeding as part of her Let's Move! anti-obesity campaign. The first lady gave a speech at a Washington, D.C.-area child care center where she discussed five ways that childcare facilities can help reduce youth obesity and improve healthy eating habits. Of breastfeeding specifically she stated:

"And finally, supporting mothers who choose to breastfeed. Whether we do it in our workplaces or in our child care facilities, breastfeeding, as we have learned, is one of the ways to reduce the level of obesity in a child. The longer a mother can breastfeed, the better off a child will be on a whole range of health issues. And I know here at CentroNia that you all are working to make sure that mothers can bring their milk to their child on a daily basis. Those are the kind of things that workplaces -- that we all need to understand is an important part of a family's well being and a child's health."

You recall the controversy back in February, when Michelle Bachmann attacked the inititiave as Mrs. Obama trying to create a "nanny state" where women were forced to breastfeed. Of course this is ridiculous because no one can force you to breastfeed, but it only makes sense to educate and support women to be successful at breastfeeding. We have abandoned "breast is best," but of all of the options currently available, it is absolutely the best way to feed your baby.  Of course the reason why people don't like the "breast is best" slogan is because really, breastfeeding is the normal way to feed infants. It is the way babies are meant to be fed. Breastfeeding is a part of the pregnancy-birth continuum. You get pregnant, you give birth to the baby, the placenta is delivered, and your body makes milk.

So why all of this talk about choice? And why can't we just talk about breastfeeding, without singling the women out who do it as those who've made a decision to breastfeed? Isn't the real choice when (barring medical complications that make breastfeeding impossible) women bind their breasts and give the baby a bottle?

When the current Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, released her Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding in January of this year with a live launch that was broadcast online, she also made sure to use the word "choice" over and over again. When the Obamas included a workplace pumping law into health care reform and when the IRS granted tax exempt status for breast pumps, it was so controversial that Mrs. Obama's communications chief released the statement, "Breastfeeding is a very personal choice for every woman. We are trying to make it easier for those who choose to do it."

But is breastfeeding a personal choice? Isn't it just what mammals do after they've given birth? And for every woman reading this who is thinking, "I wasn't able to breastfeed because of ______" I totally understand that there will always be women who can't physically breastfeed. There will always be women with insufficient glandular tissue, or who have PCOS or had previous breast surgery, or need to take medications that aren't compatible with breastfeeding. But I don't believe that these women have chosen not to breastfeed, the decision was made for them because of forces outside of their control. I'm talking about a woman with fully functioning breasts who for whatever reason bottle feeds.

 If we keep talking about breastfeeding as a choice, does it make it more difficult for us to achieve the real societal support for nursing mothers? People are quick to say women don't deserve paid maternity leave, because after all they chose to get pregnant, no one forced them to. So why should there be accommodations for breastfeeding mothers who've "chosen" what many see as the more difficult path?

Is it just me or does it seem really strange to imply that breastfeeding is a choice?

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