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Breastfeeding Controversy Shows Need for Private Efforts—Not Government Campaigns

The Trump administration has come under fire for trying to block a World Health Assembly resolution on breastfeeding in developing nations. The resolution contends that nursing is the heathiest option for infants and calls for governments to actively promote it. It also calls for more restrictions on advertisements for breastfeeding substitutes, especially baby formula.

In response, U.S. diplomats reportedly threatened other nations with trade sanctions and reduced military support if they introduced the resolution. Fearing such consequences, over a dozen countries declined to propose the measure before Russia eventually introduced it.

Some consider Washington’s stance as “blackmail” and “holding the world hostage.” Others suggest it reveals a lack of knowledge about the health advantages of breast-feeding or demonstrates a corrupt relationship with the baby formula industry.

The White House has fired back. President Trump took to Twitter, writing: “The U.S. strongly supports breastfeeding, but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula.” Health and Human Services spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told The Hill, “The United States was fighting to protect women’s abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies” and that “Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons.”

Both sides make important points.

Many organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatricians, contend that breastmilk is a healthier alternative to formula feeding. However, it’s also true that baby formula can provide much-needed nutrition for hungry children with malnourished mothers in impoverished countries.

But underneath the allegations of scientific illiteracy, industry pressures, and ideologically tinged misrepresentations lies a crucial question: Can a group of governments effectively and appropriately promote breastfeeding? History and evidence raise doubts.

Raymond J. March is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Assistant Professor of Economics at North Dakota State University.