Staff Columnist

Breastfeeding protections benefit infants - and women

Dozens of people came to Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids in 2010 as part of a “Nurse-In,” to support state law that allows women to breastfeed children in public places. The event was organized after a local woman was confronted by a mall security guard for breastfeeding near an indoor playground. (Gazette Archives)
Dozens of people came to Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids in 2010 as part of a “Nurse-In,” to support state law that allows women to breastfeed children in public places. The event was organized after a local woman was confronted by a mall security guard for breastfeeding near an indoor playground. (Gazette Archives)

Following reports of strong arm tactics intended to end a pro-breastfeeding World Health Assembly resolution, President Donald Trump and a federal agency released statements that the battle was fought to preserve women’s choices. Hogwash.

The World Health Assembly, which is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, met in Geneva in May for the 71st time. It was during this meeting, according to more than than a dozen participants who spoke with the New York Times, that U.S. officials sought to first water down and later bury a proposed resolution supporting breastfeeding.

Officials from Ecuador withdrew the resolution under U.S. threats of trade sanctions and loss of aid. Fearing similar U.S. retaliation, a dozen other countries refused to take up the measure. Ultimately, Russia sponsored the resolution, which was approved by the body. It was the same type of pro-breastfeeding language that has been supported by the international community since at least the early 1970s.

According to the Times’ report, American officials took such drastic and unusual steps because they were “embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers,” which is “dominated by a handful of American and European companies” and has recently “seen sales flatten in wealthy countries” as more women embrace breastfeeding. Modest growth still is expected in the $70 billion industry, mostly due to demand in developing nations — the very nations the World Health Organization wants to promote and protect breastfeeding.

Roni Caryn Rabin, also reporting for the Times, does a fine job of laying out where the anti-breastfeeding stance of the Trump administration is out of step with public health experts and most medical organizations.

“Breastfeeding is one of the most cost-effective interventions for improving maternal and child health,” said Dr. George C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. He and other health experts are on record as saying breastfeeding, especially in poorer countries, saves infant lives because it doesn’t require mixing with questionable water and because it passes along immunity built by the mother to the child.

But what hasn’t been said — or at least I’ve not seen it said — is that the protections enable women in poorer countries to provide their children the undisputed best start in life while continuing to work and be a part of society.

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A woman interviewed in Vietnam, for instance, reported that she first learned about support for breastfeeding through public service advertising, a project of the World Health Organization that’s funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That project, Alive & Thrive, was launched in 2009, when only 20 percent of infants in Vietnam were exclusively breastfed.

Because of public service announcements, creation of support networks, health care provider training and public policy changes (workplace lactation rooms and paid maternity leave for six months, among other things), the country increased its exclusive breastfeeding rates to 62 percent by 2014.

Culture change in five short years. Wrap your head around that.

Worldwide, only 38 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed. The goal of the World Health Organization and other like-minded groups is to increase that number to 50 percent of all infants by 2025 — preventing an estimated 800,000 infant deaths each year.

A key aspect of meeting that goal, according to Innocenti Declarations signed in 1990 and 2005, is the “normalizing” of breastfeeding within societies. That means changing public policies so that women, even those breastfeeding, can remain active contributors.

The first call to action in the 2005 Innocenti Declaration reads: “Empower women in their own right.” That sentiment is reinforced throughout the document as people and organizations are encouraged to “ensure the health and nutritional status of women throughout all stages of life,” “adopt maternity protection legislation,” and “protect populations, especially pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, from environmental contaminants and chemical residues.”

President Trump, as expected, responded to the Times report via Twitter, saying, “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula.” He added, “many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”

I can only assume the President has never price-checked a can of infant formula, and that he hasn’t bothered to read the international breastfeeding objectives.

The Health and Human Services agency under Trump’s direction released a statement saying, “The U.S. is fighting to protect women’s abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies.”

To repeat the last part of my first paragraph: Hogwash.

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Not only did the Trump administration attempt to place more infants at risk by denying them the opportunity for the best possible start in life, protections for women who choose motherhood were disregarded as well.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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