We at the IWF have nothing against breast-feeding. Like most people, we recognize that breast milk is good for babies and that nursing an infant is a lovely form of mother-child bonding. We also recognize that for some mothers, breast-feeding doesn’t work out: They either can’t produce enough milk or they’re holding a job that makes nursing, or even using a breast-pump, essentially impossible.

In recent years, however, breast-feeding has become surrounded by many unpleasant ideological  overtones. There’s the in-your-face crowd of feminist ideologues who believe that women have a right not just to nurse their babies in public but to bare their breasts exhibitionistically while doing so, no matter that other people might be offended. And there’s also the anti-infant formula crowd, which is trying to force women, especially in the developing world, to breast-feed whether they want to or not–by severely penalizing the companies that manufacture the infant formula that many mothers rely upon as a substitute for breast milk.

Syndicated columnist James K. Glassman reports the following (you need to register):

“In January, the [World Health Organization] recommended the adoption of an extreme anti-bottle-feeding resolution at the 57th World Health Assembly — the WHO’s annual meeting, set for mid-May in Geneva. The immediate objective of the resolution is to force infant-formula packages to carry warning labels akin to those on cigarettes or liquor. The ultimate goal is to scare mothers into abandoning bottle-feeding.”

The irony is that there’s no evidence whatsoever that infant formula is bad for babies. Its manufacturers are long-established companies like the Swiss firm Nestle, and millions of middle-class mothers in Europe and America who can’t breast-feed for one reason or other give their infants bottles of formula without the slightest ill effect. It is true that in many Third World countries, the water that must be mixed with the formula isn’t safe to drink without boiling first–but that’s a matter for public-health educators, not formula manufacturers.

As Glassman writes:

“There’s a correlation between high rates of infant-formula use and low rates of infant mortality. The reason is not that infant formula is better than breast milk, but that, as a country develops, infant health and nutrition improve, and the use of formula, at the same time, increases.

“Nestle sells more infant formula in a healthy nation like Belgium than it does in all of Africa, which has 60 times Belgium’s population. The best way to boost good health in Africa is to boost African economies. And time-saving technologies like infant formula can help.

“This means that Africans should be able to choose, and not to be scared or shamed into breast-feeding. Radicals and their supporters at the WHO, however, want to keep African women, in effect, barefoot, denying them the choice, as they modernize, of a healthy, convenient product.”

The anti-bottle-feeding movement seems to have several impetuses. One is a strand of Third World romanticism prevalent among Westerners that idealizes primitive lifestyles–padding around barefoot in the rice paddy rather than commuting to an office park to sit in front of a computer all day.

Another is yuppie-mama faddism. Back in the 1930s, bottle-feeding babies was–believe it or not–a snooty upper-middle-class fad, eagerly embraced by college-educated women who could then look down on the  breast-feeders as cows from the country who chewed tobacco and married their cousins. Now, the socioeconomic tables have turned: It’s upper-income moms who religiously nurse their babies (and take classes in and buy books about how to do so), while it’s working-class moms who don’t have time for that sort of thing and rely on formula to keep their infants fed. The elite types who want to outlaw bottle-feeding essentially want to push the folkways of upper-echelon parenting onto the rest of the world.

And don’t forget the anti-capitalist angle. Big companies manufacture infant formula–and we can’t have that.

The World Health Organization, like many a U.N. agency started out in 1948 as a benign bureaucracy that hoped to marshall science and medicine to cure the diseases that ravaged the world’s poor countries. But for at least two decades it has been hijacked by ideologues for whom politics comes before public health. That’s certainly the case with the anti-bottle crusade, which the U.S. government should take a strong and blunt stand against.