Und Nochmal Kathy Dettwyler: Breastfeeding as a Human Rights Issue

Breastfeeding as a Human Rights Issue
By Katherine A. Dettwyler

Originally written as a PowerPoint presentation
for ALCA in 2006 & ILCA in 2007, updated 2009

In 2006, the Australian Lactation Consultants Association held a conference with the theme of “Breastfeeding as a Human Rights Issue”. The main speakers were:

• Dr. Judith Galtry, PhD, NZ, international human rights law, active in advocating for women and children’s breastfeeding rights to be protected in human rights legislation in New Zealand
• Dr. Helen Szoke, Chief Executive Officer/Chief Conciliator, Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria, Australia
• Dr. Helen Watchirs, Australian Capital Territory, Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner
• [not present in person] Dr. George Kent, PhD, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, leading world expert on breastfeeding as a human rights issue

I was asked to participate in various ways, including giving a summary at the end of the conference about the overall subject and what had been said. What follows is extracted from the PowerPoint Presentation I put together based on my reactions and comments at the conference, with some updating. I also presented this at ILCA in 2007 in San Diego.

The “Human Rights” approach is:

– Legalistic
– Antagonistic
– Adversarial

• It pits the rights of the mother against the rights of others

• It pits the rights of the child (to breastfeed) against the rights of the mother (not to breastfeed)

My right as a mother to breastfeed


Your right not to be “offended” by my breastfeeding

A Human Rights Solution: Various strategies that legally strengthen and protect a mother’s right to breastfeed her child wherever she has a right to be, with penalties for anyone discriminating against the breast-feeding mother.

Problems with this solution? It doesn’t challenge, or even address, the perspective that “breast-feeding is offensive” held by some people and institutions.

My right as a mother to breastfeed


Your right not to be “offended” by my breastfeeding

A Culture Change Solution: Various strategies to educate and enculturate all members of society in such a way that no one finds breastfeeding offensive. In other words, change people’s attitudes – permanently.

Advantages of this solution?

1. It addresses the underlying issues, thereby solving the problem, and it doesn’t punish anyone.
2. It is a more permanent fix than allowing the current cultural belief system to remain in place and continuing to punish people who have been taught that breastfeeding is ‘icky’.

Breastfeeding as a Human Rights issue – couched in terms of whether I can or cannot eat a meal at a restaurant, or nurse at my son’s preschool, or at a public swimming pool, or at a museum, or at Wal-Mart – is trivializing.

Especially when compared to other aspects of breastfeeding as a human right, and to other aspects of human rights such as freedom of assembly, or the right not to be tortured.

And there is the other aspect of the issue. It’s not just a matter of the conflict between a breastfeeding mother/child pair and ‘others’ who might object, but also of conflict between the mother and her child.

Right of the child to breastfeed


Right of the mother to choose how she feeds her child
[i.e., her right to not breastfeed]

This again sets up an artificial conundrum. It pits the mother against the child in an adversarial or antagonistic relationship. As though the mother and child had different and conflicting interests . . . . .

As though it were a zero sum game . . . As though there must be a winner and a loser . . . As though breastfeeding were only an onus, a chore, a burden . . . As though the benefits are all to the individual child, and the costs all to the individual mother.

Again, there is another perspective to consider. One which has been proposed by others working and writing on this topic, but usually rather . . . timidly.

View the mother and the baby as one unit: A joint right to breastfeed.

Every child has the right to breastfeed, and the right to a breastfeeding relationship with its mother.

Every mother has the right to breastfeed, and the right to a breastfeeding relationship with her child.

It isn’t just the baby who breastfeeds, or the mother.

It isn’t just the baby who benefits and the mother who suffers.

It is the whole society that either breastfeeds, or doesn’t. When a child doesn’t breastfeed, the child suffers. But the mother suffers as well. Indeed, the whole society suffers.

Likewise, when a child does breastfeed, it isn’t just the child who benefits. The mother benefits as well. Indeed, the whole society benefits.

James Akre phrases it this way: “That even talking about “informed choice” is inappropriate. That given accurate information from a disinterested source [not a formula company] and given society-wide knowledge of the importance of breastfeeding, and given society-wide support for breastfeeding, everyone would choose to breastfeed.” (Akre 2006)

Along with rights, come responsibilities.

• I’d like to see baby and breast-feeding come packaged together.

• Baby = Breastfeeding.

• “You (as an individual) have the right to procreate, but we (as a society) expect you to take care of the child.”

If having a child automatically meant breastfeeding, if they came packaged together, then anyone who didn’t want to breastfeed wouldn’t have to.

The solution is simple:
If you don’t want to breastfeed, then don’t have a child.

If women understood that having a baby meant breastfeeding, then they would not “feel pressured to breastfeed,” and they wouldn’t “feel guilty” if they didn’t. They wouldn’t have a child, so breastfeeding would not be an issue.

If we are serious that a child has a right to breastfeed, then of course it automatically follows that mothers have a duty, an obligation, a trust to breastfeed their children.

From this perspective, mothers don’t have the right to choose not to breastfeed – any more than they have the right not to hold their child’s hand when crossing a busy street.

If you don’t want to breastfeed, then don’t have a child.

If we are serious . . . . Then it follows that society has a duty, an obligation, a trust, to support breastfeeding mothers and children in all ways necessary. Whatever it takes.

Hormonal grieving:

Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, the only time a mammalian mother would give birth and then not breastfeed would be if her baby died. By not breastfeeding, her body is getting the message that the baby died – this attempt at reproduction was unsuccessful. There is no baby.

Expecting the mother to then be able to relate in a normal way to her real, live, very needy child, to care for that child, to feel the affection for that child that comes automatically from the mothering hormones – oxytocin and prolactin – which she doesn’t have circulating in her bloodstream, since she isn’t breastfeeding – is expecting too much of her.

Mothers have a right to education, information, and support for breastfeeding and all that breastfeeding entails.

Mothers have a right to a breastfeeding relationship with their children.

Mothers have a right to normal mothering hormones while they are caring for their children.

Society has an obligation to itself to become educated/informed about the consequences of feeding the artificially altered milk of an alien species to our human children.

Society has an obligation to itself to create a breastfeeding society with all the necessary supports, including breast milk from milk banks or wet-nurses for situations where the mother’s own milk is not available.

The ambulance metaphor: The clip art didn‘t come through, but one shows a bunch of lemmings (small rodent-like mammals) throwing themselves off a cliff, and the second showed an ambulance rushing up to help the lemmings lying dead or injured at the bottom of the cliff.

Lactation Consultants are the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff; we need to keep mothers and babies from falling off the cliff in the first place – true breastfeeding societies have NO NEED for LCs.

To get to that point we must insist that formula/bottle use is NOT acceptable. Not nowhere, not nohow. It constitutes reckless endangerment of the child.

We must understand that mothers lose as much as babies when they don’t breastfeed.

That society loses when mothers and babies don’t breastfeed.

Quoting James Akre:

[Our] “common goal – more and longer breastfeeding – and our common objective – entire societies that are geared to supporting the biological norm for nurturing and nourishing the young of our species.” “We should be unrelenting in our efforts to re-shape culture, and society, and its institutions, to ensure not only that mothers, because they are genuinely informed, choose breastfeeding every time, but also that they are fully supported in their choice. . . The Key Messages are clear now: During the early years, the nurturing role of mothers is central to children’s healthy physical, intellectual, and emotional development; and that babies are indeed born to be breastfed.”

It is the right of society to consist of individuals who have been fed their own species’ milk, and who have been nurtured and nourished at their mothers’ breasts.

Jim Akre’s book is available from:

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