A Woman's Right to Choose (Not to Breastfeed)

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New York City's new pro-breast milk policy stigmatizes infant formula and limits access to it, effectively revoking women's freedom to feed their babies as they choose.

RTR2RSJLmain.jpgMathieu Belanger/Reuters

Already leading one of the most aggressive "pro-breast milk" campaigns in the country, New York City has announced that it will now track usage of infant formula. In the latest salvo in the push to turn breastfeeding from a healthy option to a public mandate, hospitals will keep formula locked away, treating it more like contraband than basic infant sustenance. 

Women who have heard the advantages of breastfeeding and have decided -- for whatever personal reason -- to feed their newborns formula, will now have to justify their reasoning before they are given access to it.

When, exactly, exercising a personal right about what to do for your child (and with your own body) became a public statement, open to the city's files and others' judgment, is unclear.

Women opt not to breastfeed for myriad reasons. Some cannot breastfeed because they must take anti-depressants or other medications that prevent healthy breastfeeding. Several women I know simply could not make breastfeeding work because a battering of infections and their body's inability to produce sufficient milk made it both painful and unworkable. Others insisted on breastfeeding, only to find that they could not give their baby enough milk to help them put on weight and grow.

Giving birth to a baby does not make you an infant.

But that is not the point. Nor is the central issue the positives of breastfeeding. Indeed, women should receive all the education available in the least judgmental environment possible. Who could possibly oppose that? But once the discussion is done, women who decide breastfeeding does not work for them should be able to make their decision in peace and without prying. The real reason the Gotham policy is so objectionable is it infantilizes women by telling them they are no longer adult enough to decide for themselves what is best for their families and themselves.

It is strange. Somehow we have reached a point where people who speak angrily of the "war on women" when it comes to family planning do not hesitate to exercise suffocation of choice when it comes to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has gone from being an ideal option for new mothers to a mandatory prerequisite for "good" parenthood. 

Women who do not breast feed, for whatever reason, all of them personal, now must confess it in whispers, even though infant formula is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and meets "the nutritional needs of infants." They don't dare admit their decision out loud for fear of risking the disapproval of their peers and colleagues. Why these same peers and colleagues feel entitled to ask about such a personal family choice is, of course, quite another question. And it has to do with making breastfeeding a public mandate, not a personal family choice.

Just after I had a baby, a little more than a year ago, complete strangers would ask me about how I was finding the art of nursing. I admit I was taken aback. Why did I need to answer that question? And when did private decisions become a public curiosity?

A friend told me in sheepish tones recently that she "knows breast feeding is good," but that she finds it nearly impossible to do, and is ashamed that she is considering choosing formula for her baby so that she keeps on the weight. Another new mother I know said the nurses at the hospital made her feel "fear and anxiety and guilt" after she was told she had to supplement breast milk with formula because the baby needed more food than she could provide.

As the Surgeon General has noted, "the decision to breastfeed is a personal one, and a mother should not be made to feel guilty if she cannot or chooses not to breastfeed." Does anyone think that treating Infamil like a narcotic will reduce new mothers' "anxiety" and "guilt?"

Weighing in on other women's most intimate decisions is now the norm and then some, because it is cloaked in the language of public policy. It seems that even those who are "pro-choice" on nearly every issue imaginable find their tolerance ends when it comes to choices they don't support. Or, as it now appears, many open-minded people are open-minded only until new mothers make a family decision with which they don't agree.

In addition to keeping infant formula safely secured behind deadbolts, 27 New York City hospitals now say they will eliminate "maternity swag" (complimentary infant formula and accessories) even after women have been told the advantages of breast feeding and decided against it.

Why should government officials -- who can easily afford formula -- stop women who can't afford it from receiving a few free samples? To eliminate what little positive difference may have been making in a miserable economy? To revoke any sense of support for that mother's decision? Women should make informed choices, absolutely, but if they decide against breastfeeding for whatever reason, why should they not save $20 by taking home a tin of Similac? This is not about the formula industry. This is about women's right to choose what is right for their family and themselves.

Giving birth to a baby does not make you an infant. And turning grown-ups into children who no longer have personal rights to exercise once they have received the education is hardly the right way to encourage healthy habits.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program. Her most recent book is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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