Note: this blog references the sensitive topic of infant feeding. I must therefore state at the outset that no one at The Minimise Project judges what milk you feed your baby. In fact, we wholeheartedly endorse every word of this blog post.
Since I gave birth to my eldest child five years ago, I have learned so much about breastfeeding, and I have also seen how much of what I’ve learned can be applied to pro-life activism. For this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, I’m sharing the lessons I’ve learned from breastfeeding advocacy, and how they can be applied in a pro-life context.
The importance of normalising pregnancy
The first lesson that pro-life activists can learn from breastfeeding advocates is the importance of normalisation. I blogged about this concept before, and about how glorifying breastfeeding actually undermines breastfeeding as a biologically normal process that half the human species can undertake. I want to dig a bit further though. It’s actually remarkable how many women completely intend to breastfeed – and yet buy bottles and formula “just in case”. They are told that this is a sensible, prudent thing to do. Breastfeeding “might not work out”, they are told, and it’s best to be “prepared”, just in case. This, of course, makes perfect sense – until you ask yourself why no one keeps a spare defibrillator “just in case” their heart stops working. Or a spare dialysis machine “just in case” their kidneys fail. Or a spare ventilator “just in case” their lungs give up…I could go on.
In fact, when you think about it, the only reason it makes perfect sense to us for a woman who intends to breastfeed to get formula and bottles in advance is if she thinks, or has been led to believe, that there’s a good chance her breasts won’t work. Is it pure coincidence that it’s only those pesky mammary glands, used to perform the quintessentially female function of breastfeeding, that we are so sure “won’t work”? I don’t think so: think of how pregnant women are portrayed in TV, films and popular culture. They generally turn into crazy, hormonal banshees, getting sick, giving out and making life miserable for themselves and everyone around them.
Of course, that’s not to say that there’s no such thing as a breastfeeding problem – there is of course, just as there are heart and lung and kidney problems. But breastfeeding advocates often talk about looking for breastfeeding solutions for breastfeeding problems. What we mean by that is, if there is a problem with breastfeeding, can we please find and fix, rather than simply bypass, the problem? As this blog notes,
“If you can’t smell anything you can usually visit a doctor who will perform tests on your nose, rather than telling you that your sense of smell doesn’t matter and that someone else can just smell your dinner for you. But many women experiencing breastfeeding difficulties are simply told there are no tests, to stop persevering, and to give their baby a bottle of formula. They should remember that the main thing is that their baby is fed.”
This suspicion and distrust with which we treat women’s bodies should be a huge item in the pro-life toolkit. We should be first in line pointing out how our culture constantly places all sorts of restrictions on pregnant women, often with little to no scientific evidence behind them. (Expecting Better by Emily Oster provides a great round-up of the relevant literature.) However, it’s generally pro-choice people who draw attention to these facts. This is deeply ironic, seeing as how constantly questioning and restricting pregnant women contributes to the cultural norm that pregnancy is so awful we must have recourse to abortion. Unfortunately, pro-life people are actually sometimes more likely to buy into the idea that it’s good to place restrictions on pregnant women, on the basis that this means we’re taking the baby’s safety seriously.
Pro-lifers, do not fall into this trap! Don’t question a pregnant woman’s every decision. Support her in her pregnancy. There’s no need to burden her further with judgement, stigma or endless queries about whether she should do such and such “in her condition”. There’s no reason to wrap her in bubble wrap in order to prove to all and sundry how pro-life you are.
The prevalence of motivated reasoning
Dr Jack Newman is one of the world’s foremost authorities on breastfeeding, and in one of his books he recounts a story of his time working as a pediatrician in Transkei in Africa. He recounts how black women had noted that white women’s babies got sick and died less often, and also noted that white women’s babies drank formula. As a consequence, black mothers had started to give formula to their babies – but of course because these women were unable to afford sufficient formula, and unable to prepare it safely, their babies got very sick and sometimes died, whereas if they had been exclusively breastfed they would have avoided illness and death. These women had fallen for the fallacy of thinking correlation meant causation: they saw that white women had healthier babies who were fed formula, so they assumed white women had healthier babies because they were fed formula. Breastfeeding advocates understand this fallacy, and lament it.
Except…breastfeeding advocates are also guilty of this fallacy. There is good evidence that there are objective differences in health outcomes for breastfed vs non-breastfed infants, but these differences can be exaggerated and overstated, and it’s often based on correlation-equals-causation arguments. Breastfeeding advocates are displaying motivated reasoning: when they want something to be true, they find evidence in support of their position, even if that evidence is bad. When they don’t want something to be true, they find ways to mistrust evidence in favour of that fact, or they find other evidence against that fact. And they’re not alone. Everyone displays motivated reasoning. Every single one of us.
Pro-life people also need to guard against motivated reasoning. In particular, we need to be careful when we cite “evidence” that abortion does harm in such-and-such a situation, or rubbish evidence that anyone ever was happy, relieved or glad after having an abortion (check out this post on abortion regret for more). We need to be careful about assuming that just because we felt a certain way when we experienced miscarriage /stillbirth /abortion /infertility, that those feelings and emotions will be felt by any and everyone else in a similar situation. We also need to be wary of insisting that it’s always better for a woman, emotionally, to go through a long protracted miscarriage. Yes, it might be the best option physiologically, but that doesn’t mean hanging around for days or weeks waiting for an inevitable miscarriage can never cause trauma or harm.
Above all, we need to be honest about why we’re pro-life – yes, we know abortion harms women, but that’s not the only or even the primary reason we oppose abortion. We oppose abortion because we believe it’s always wrong to end another human life. We don’t need to run after shaky “evidence” that abortion causes all sorts of trauma and regret to argue that it’s objectively bad to kill other human beings.
The importance of choice
Breastfeeding advocates are often disparagingly referred to as the “Breastfeeding brigade” – a band of judgemental women who will shame and guilt anyone for not breastfeeding. This is so strange to someone like me who has actually attended breastfeeding support groups and has yet to see judgement or stigmatisation. In fact, the breastfeeding advocates I know are motivated by protecting women’s choices. If all you want is to give your baby one pumped bottle of breastmilk per day, you will find a breastfeeding advocate to support you in that choice. They won’t bash you over the head with a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and insist that actually you must exclusively breastfeed for five years. They meet you where you’re at, and they are often hurt when anyone implies that they do or would do otherwise.
The funny thing is that these same women, many of whom are staunchly pro-choice, are often extremely surprised when they learn that I am pro-life. They assume that because I too am passionate about supporting women in meeting their personal breastfeeding goals, whatever they may be, that I value autonomy and choice over all else, and so must be pro-choice. Similarly, they assume that because pro-life people have no problem imposing on women’s bodily autonomy, that pro-life breastfeeding advocates will obviously insist that every woman must breastfeed, whether she wants to or not. This misunderstanding by pro-choice breastfeeding advocates has actually been really helpful for me in getting my head around my views on balancing the right to bodily autonomy and the right to life.
The main thing I’ve learned is that I think the right to choice and autonomy in medical and parenting decisions is incredibly important. I think the right to bodily autonomy doesn’t give you the right to intentionally take an action that causes another human being to die – but I wouldn’t go much farther than that. Specifically, I don’t think a baby’s right to biologically normal nutrition trumps a woman’s right to decide who uses her body and why. To extend an analogy I’ve used previously, I don’t think a conjoined twin has a right to consent to separation surgery that would result in the death of their twin without the twin’s consent – but I don’t think a conjoined twin has a responsibility to eat a perfect diet because to do otherwise would endanger the health of their twin. Pro-choice people, and even some pro-life people, don’t always understand this distinction. Pro-choice breastfeeding advocates honestly think that pro-life people have no problem making all sorts of impositions on women’s choices regarding pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and parenting, and sometimes pro-life people say and do things that can add to the confusion. For example, pro-life women can say things like “I can’t believe that someone who sees the importance of nourishing our children with our bodies also thinks it’s ok to kill those children while they’re inside our bodies”. Phrases like this can really muddy the waters around issues like choice and autonomy.
I have found that passionately defending women’s right to make any choices they like, so long as they don’t lead directly to the death of another human being, can be a great way to find common ground and invite helpful questions. It shows people that there are reasons to be pro-life that aren’t grounded in the idea that no one gets to decide what happens to their body, that instead we are slaves to our biology and are powerless to plan our families. And it gives me an opportunity to discuss with them why I am pro-life.