Sunday Derailed by US Threatening Ecuador Over Breastmilk (for real)

It was going to be a peaceful Sunday, getting caught up on a few things that needed my attention. That was the plan, until I read the New York Times. That’s when my day went BOOM, just like the cannons in Hamilton.

The New York Times published this article today. I have to say that I was surprised. I realize I shouldn’t be, but I amaze myself daily with my ongoing ability to be caught off guard.

It is not completely surprising that the United States didn’t like the wording in the United Nations-led World Health Assembly’s resolution to encourage breastfeeding. The US has always refused to sign on to the World Health Organization’s Code on Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (referred to as the WHO Code).  Rather, the big clown jumping out of today’s jack in the box was the reported strong-arming by US representatives of Ecuador and other countries.

When something doesn’t add up, follow the money.

I see where some of the money is, but I can’t see all of it.

The formula industry is a $70 billion a year industry. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s with a “b”. There is a lot of money at stake. The formula industry’s sales have been fairly stagnant over the last few years. That seems to coincide with increasing breastfeeding rates around the globe.

The formula industry has a huge lobbying arm. It is a big, heavy, no-holds-barred arm. They have wielded much power in the past. There were representatives from the formula industry present in Geneva. I would guess that their arm weighs about $70 billion.

This, from the article, is chilling:

The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.

The reports are that our US ambassador to Ecuador, Todd C. Chapman, implied to officials in Ecuador that if they didn’t back down:

…the Trump administration might also retaliate by withdrawing the military assistance it has been providing in northern Ecuador, a region wracked by violence spilling across the border from Colombia, according to an Ecuadorean government official who took part in the meeting.

And this is where I start to wonder what the hell is going on.

We would potentially withdraw military assistance….over breastmilk.

We would potentially unleash punishing trade measures…over breastmilk.

Let me be clear: to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that I am aware of that representatives of the US government have been so blatant with threats…over breastmilk. This is unprecedented.

And the even more bizarre part? After Ecuador backed down, 12 other countries did the same. Until Russia stepped up. Only Russia was not afraid of US retaliation.

Quickly, US government officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tried to spin it as mothers should have a right to choose how they feed their babies, etc:

“…an H.H.S. spokesman said in an email. “We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.” The spokesman asked to remain anonymous in order to speak more freely.”

In case you missed it, because it was so sleekly packaged, the HHS person turned this into a mother’s choice issue. In other words—it’s the Mommy Wars. This person is saying that the resolution before the group would stigmatize mothers for how they feed their babies.

This approach is one of the oldest in the books. It is Divide and Conquer 101. If you pit mothers against each other, they will be so busy fighting that they won’t notice what’s going on around them.

The Mommy Wars came about as moms from all walks of life were feeling attacked and looked down upon for any and all of their parenting choices. It was a marketing technique that the formula companies rolled out several years ago and it has been highly successful. (They even put out an extended commercial that received great accolades) And it has grown to encompass all areas of parenting.

Those who formula feed feel judged by those who breastfeed and vice versa. And the moms feel beaten all to hell.

The person from HHS is speaking from the script they were given. And it is a well-oiled, $70 billion/year script. Keep the mothers fighting one another.

It does not help that new parents cannot easily, across the board, access excellent, affordable breastfeeding support when they need it. (The Affordable Care Act had a clause that was supposed to fix this. It did allow moms to get pumps but not necessarily help) Women of 21st Century America find themselves at odds with biology when they are trying to get breastfeeding established, while preparing to return to work in short order.

I meet so many mothers who feel duped by a system that gave them little to no support. And you know what, they have every right to be angry and upset: the cost to support a new breastfeeding mother is peanuts compared to the cost (mentally, emotionally, physically, dollar-wise and health-wise) when breastfeeding doesn’t go well. The families are the ones paying the ultimate price.

I just want to state for the record: there is not $70 billion in breastfeeding. This is not a level playing ground. The only way breastfeeding has even a possible chance of being an option to mothers and successful,  is when groups like the World Health Assembly protects, promotes and supports breastfeeding. The formula industry has lots of money to buy ads, “free” formula kits, and parents’ loyalty. Breastfeeding has no such funds. Without the voices looking out for the possibility of breastfeeding, it would be virtually drowned out by a $70 billion/year industry.

When are we going to realize that the following are needed after giving birth:

  • Home help in adjusting to a new baby in the first weeks after birth
  • Breastfeeding support available and affordable when the parent needs it
  • Paid maternity leave (we have a bill in Congress right now on this topic that is feasible)
  • Maternity leave that is long enough to allow for mother and baby to be at a more biologically-appropriate time for separation from one another
  • Trustworthy and affordable childcare

Believe it or not, these issues are what we are really fighting about. But, pitting one mother against another is the low-hanging fruit and the distraction prevents us from forming a powerful coalition.

The parents are not the bad guys here. They are just trying to love on their babies and do what they have to do to survive. These parents and their babies deserve to thrive.

Here’s hoping we are brave enough to face this head on.


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