Here we go again: more complaints about the IWF’s open letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt protesting some proposed U.N. and World Health Organization regulations that would require manufacturers of infant formula to slap a label containing the equivalent of a skull and crossbones onto every package of the stuff marketed in the Third World. (See also my Breast-Feeding Totalitarians, April 7, and the Mailbags for April 25, May 2, and May 3.)

To reiterate: We are not opposed to the breast-feeding of infants; like most people, we agree that “breast is best” for mother and baby where circumstances permit. But we are opposed to radical breast-feeding advocates’ efforts to stigmatize mothers’ decisions to bottle-feed their babies–decisions that might be prompted by such perfectly valid reasons such as inability to nurse or work at a job that is incompatible with regular nursing or even using a breast-pump.

So here’s what reader E.S. has to say: 

“I find it very ironic that you would consider the U.N.’s work to support breast-feeding as an attack on working women. I breast-feed my daughter, and I work full time. Your statement was incredibly ignorant;…a mother’s milk supply can be manipulated so that she produces milk only in the evening and doesn’t even have to pump during the day. Breastfeeding and work are not mutally exclusive.

“Formula can support breastfeeding. It doesn’t have to be either/or, but we have the right to information about the risks and benefits….[I]’s absurd for a supposedly ‘pro-woman’ organization to claim that women have the right to ignorance. The scientific evidence is clear that babies were meant to be fed breast-milk and that formula is substandard. For too long, women have been kept ignorant about the risks associated with breast-milk. Many women will choose to use formula, and that is absolutely their right and often the only choice they feel is reasonable. But all the World Health Organization proposes to do is put warning labels on formula so that women are adequately warned about the risks of not breast-feeding.

“Do you also oppose nutritional labels that allow us to know about dangerous trans fats in our foods? Is a woman’s right to ignorance truly something you defend? I think its clear that your ideologic opposition to ‘big’ government and the U.N. has clouded your reasoning on this issue.”

And here’s reader J.P.:

“My first child was born in the Philippines, and most of the other mothers with me were Filipinas. The women coming up to my house to beg, came for a little cash, or better yet, baby formula. I’ve got no sympathy whatsoever for those pushing baby formula. Formula commercials in the U.S. are far different from formula commercials in the Third World. The marketing is different, and I’ve seen it.

“Young mothers of my aquaintence (real people, not hypothetical ones) chose formula because it was *civilized* and shunned breast feeding, not because they had jobs, but because it was primitive. Only peasants breast-fed, and no one wanted to appear to be a peasant (or admit to that social class). People who lived day to day, with no security whatsoever that tomorrow would bring a paycheck, chose bottle-feeding. And when the paycheck didn’t come they watered the formula or fed sugar water. It’s always possible to stop breast-feeding; once stopped you can’t start just because today there is no money, or you’ve been abandoned, or some natural disaster means you can’t get formula, or the distribution system messed up and the store is just out. We live in a very secure world, here.

“The breast-feeding purists are an annoyance, right along with the cloth-diaper-only crowd. Our social services bend over backward to be certain that babies have good nutrition. Translating what is true for us about our lives and attitudes in our world to policy in poor countries is irresponsibly stupid. Social pressure here is to nurse infants. Social pressure there is to not be like an animal. American-owned companies that prey on the attitudes of poor women around the world in order to make a profit are showing an ethical paucity that disgusts me.”

To E.S.: I can’t comment on your assertion that a mother’s production of breast-milk can be “manipulated” so that she produces it only at times convenient to her (it would seem to contradict the experience of most working moms I know who breastfeed and are dependent on their job-breaks that allow them to rush to the ladies’ room to use their pumps).

But I can comment on the anti-bottle-feeding “warnings” that the U.N. wants to slap onto packages of infant formula, and here’s my comment: If a food is safe for human consumption, and, in the case of baby formula, supplies all an infant’s nutrutional needs, I don’t see any need for “warnings” that really go to the mother’s way of life, not the food itself. As for “trans fats” (I love that phrase, which brings to my mind an obese cross-dresser), I think the government should get out of the nutritional-bugaboo business. Twenty years ago we were warned to eat margarine instead of animal fat-laden butter. Now, the consensus is that butter is good and margarine is bad because it’s loaded with…trans fats. What’s next?

To J.P.: Every woman since Eve cuddled little Cain has known that once you stop breast-feeding a baby, your milk dries up and you can’t start again. I don’t think the women of the Philippines are any exception. If impoverished Filipina mothers want to spend their money stupidly on infant formula that they don’t need and can’t afford, how is that any different from impoverished mothers here in the U.S. spending their money stupidly on, say, overpriced junk food for their kids instead of cheaper and more nutritious vegetables and fruit? In both cases there’s a problem, a problem of tragic proportions–but it’s a lifestyle problem that relates to an across-the-board breakdown in social values and family stability. It won’t be solved by demonizing the manufacturers of infant formula, just as it won’t be solved by demonizing Frito-Lay.

I don’t know how infant formula is marketed in the Third World, but I certainly know how it’s marketed here in the U.S.: in, yes, attractive pastel packaging festooned with pictures of babies human and animal. The packages also make it clear that breast-feeding is preferable where feasible and contain specific instructions on how the formula is to be used. Why should different standards be applicable for sales to Third World women than the standards applicable to their immigrant cousins here in America?