The Many Voices in a Breastfeeding Debate

The Blessed Virgin Breastfeeding

The Let’s Move! program and First Lady Michelle Obama have plenty of ideas about ending childhood obesity, and one of them is the importance of breastfeeding. Yesterday we brought up some of the problems encountered by the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States.) The public may experience either strong feelings or ambivalence, both of which are exemplified by Sheila Kippley, a co-founder of Natural Family Planning International, who was interviewed by Marianne Medlin for the Catholic News Agency.

Kippley points out that breastfed children have stronger immune systems, and vaccinations work better on them. They also suffer less from diabetes, asthma, allergies, and other medical problems, and their school careers are distinguished by better attendance and higher grades than their non-breastfed compatriots.

Of course, the science behind all this has been questioned. Once you start bringing sociology into it, the higher grades, for instance, can be as readily explained by other factors. A family where the mother has the leisure to stay home and nurse a baby for a protracted period is also a family where the mother has a car to assure that the child makes it to school. Maybe the breastfeeding doesn’t cause the good attendance. Maybe they are both the effects of a more basic cause, the family’s relative affluence. As comic George Carlin pointed out when examining the “gateway drug” theory,

Mother’s milk leads to everything.

Kippley is also credited with a quotation that sounds like one of those blue-sky pseudo-statistics that spokespersons seem able to pull out of thin air:

If all mothers world-wide would exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months, one and a half million babies’ lives would be saved each year.

Here is where the ambivalence comes in. Although Kippley agrees with the administration that breastfeeding should be promoted, she’s against letting the nursing moms have a tax deduction, saying,

The purchase of breast pumps is simply not a subject for federal, state, and city taxes.

Actually, it is, if the tax authorities say that it is. Kippley seems a bit out of touch with reality. Also, she has pointed out that women who stay at home with their babies don’t need breast pumps, and she seems to imply that if women in this position choose to return to work, they don’t deserve any tax breaks.

Objections have multiplied, and TIME magazine, in its usual thorough manner, has compiled a list of “Top 10 Breast-Feeding Controversies.” Susanna Schrobsdorff mentions several different incidents in recent history where women have been kicked out of intolerant public venues. She writes,

The incidents usually spark well-publicized outrage and inspire a bevy of breast-feeding women to descend on the site of the dispute in protest of the idea that nursing women should be banished to the ugly confines of a public-toilet stall — usually the only private area available. The whole thing usually ends up with an apology from the institution or business involved — after all, public breast feeding is protected under the law in most states and on all federal property.

The whole debate has wandered off into some bizarre byways that involve dolls, school-age children, Facebook, t-shirts, breast milk donations to third-world countries, a Redbook magazine cover, world-famous model Gisele Bündchen, and world-famous actress Angelina Jolie. Amid all this cultural detritus, Schrobsdorff directs us to a useful page detailing the practices endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Of course, Sarah Palin is mixed up in all this. She made some wisecrack about the price of milk. Meanwhile, a number of newspapers dug up information showing that as governor of Alaska, Palin herself promoted breastfeeding. This must put her in an awkward position, because she is of course obligated to be against anything that is favored by the Obama administration. Palin publicly declared that she would protest against the whole anti-child-obesity campaign by feeding her family s’mores (melted chocolate and marshmallow on graham crackers). Then British super-chef Jamie Oliver called Palin a Froot Loop and said…

… he’s heard from pediatricians and dentists who feel some parents are edging toward child abuse by not feeding them healthy food.

This controversy is by no means over, especially the breastfeeding part.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Catholic mothers debate breastfeeding and government involvement,” Catholic News Agency, 02/25/11
Source: “Woman Kicked Off a Plane for Breast Feeding,” TIME, 02/23/11
Source: “Sarah Palin Slams Michelle Obama,”
TIME, 02/23/11
Source: “Jamie Oliver: Sarah Palin A ‘Froot Loop’ For Criticizing Michelle Obama,” The Huffington Post, 02/26/11
Image by celesteh (Charles Hutchins), used under its Creative Commons license.


  1. Great article, I think you covered everything there.Thank you for all the great sharing that is being done here.Thanks!

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