Hundreds of government delegates gathered in Geneva this spring for the United Nations-affiliated World Healthy Assembly, where they’d discuss a resolution that reportedly intends to encourage breastfeeding. The resolution argues that a mother’s milk is healthiest for babies and, thus, countries should work to stop the dissemination of any inaccurate and misleading marketing of break milk substitutes. But the U.S. delegation upended deliberations, supporting infant formula manufacturers and arguing for the removal of language that calls on governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding.” The U.S. delegation also pushed for the removal of another passage that calls on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products often warned to have damaging effects on children.
The U.S.’s opposition reportedly shocked public health officials and foreign diplomats alike, as it’s deemed a stark contrast to the U.S.’s usual support. The U.S. has largely backed the World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) longstanding policies that encourage breastfeeding, and Washington is the largest contributor to the W.H.O, providing $845 million (about 15 percent of its budget) last year alone. Now, health officials are reportedly concerned that the U.S. may cut its contributions and side with corporate interests on public health and environmental issues, according to The New York Times.
More than a dozen participants from several countries in the discussion requested anonymity out of fear of U.S. retaliation, after the U.S. reportedly said “Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid,” if Ecuador — the first to acquiesce — refused to drop the resolution, The New York Times reported.
“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” said Patti Rundall, the policy director of British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, who has attended meetings of the decision-making body of the World Health Organization since the late 1980s, according to USA Today. “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health.”
The resolution refers to decades of research that suggests that breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed babies. A 2016 study, for example, found that universal breastfeeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths worldwide each year and save $300 billion from abridged healthcare costs. Hesitation to carry out a study that’d test break milk against breast milk substitutes boils down to ethics and morals.
An anonymous Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) spokesman told The New York Times, however, that the U.S. only wants to ensure that mothers who cannot breastfeed alternative options to feed their babies.
“The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” the spokesman reportedly said, adding that the H.H.S. was not involved in any alleged threats. “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.”
Of course, it's wrong to stigmatize mothers who cannot breastfeed for a number of reasons — whether they've had breast surgeries for health or cosmetic reasons, or whether they're sick, pressed for time or something else entirely. And it's not right to shame those who do indeed choose to formula feed. There are other options for mothers who can't breastfeed and don't want to formula feed, like using breast milk donors through sites like Milk Share, Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets. But even mothers who try alternatives are too often shamed.
The resolution, however, calls to stop the dissemination of wrongful information — not to strip women who cannot breastfeed of their options.
Ultimately, Russia stepped in to introduce the resolutions, a move that was not met with any reported opposition or threats from the U.S., according to Slate. The U.S. succeeded in having the language that called on the W.H.O to offer technical support to member states looking to cease “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children,” but the final resolution preserved the bulk of the original wording.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.