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POV: Trump Administration’s Position on Breastfeeding Is “Deeply Unsettling”

Puts private interest ahead of the public’s health


Last week, the New York Times reported that the United States tried to block a World Health Assembly resolution encouraging governments to promote breastfeeding among their citizens. The United States also reportedly tried to remove from the resolution language recommending that countries curb the promotion of food products that may undermine the health of young children, threatening the resolution’s would-be sponsor, Ecuador, with economic punishment if the changes were not approved. While the measure was ultimately passed after Russia stepped in to introduce it, the fact that the episode occurred at all is deeply unsettling.

US opposition to the measure came as a surprise to many who had regarded the resolution as singularly uncontentious. Indeed, even in these divided times, it takes work to find what is controversial about breastfeeding. The benefits of the practice are amply supported by decades of research. They include lower risk of infection, obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). A 2016 Lancet study found that universal breastfeeding would save the lives of more than 800,000 children a year, and generate about $300 billion in savings from better economic outcomes and lower associated healthcare costs. The 2011 Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding reviewed the data on the practice and concluded: “Breast milk is uniquely suited to the human infant’s nutritional needs and is a live substance with unparalleled immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that protect against a host of illnesses and diseases for both mothers and children.”

The Trump administration’s opposition to breastfeeding would be baffling if it did not fit a broader pattern. This administration has consistently prioritized private interests over the public good. Its actions at the World Health Assembly seem to have emerged from a desire to advance the interests of the infant formula industry, a motive further suggested by the president’s recent tweet in support of formula. If this is the case, it fits with the administration’s earlier steps to roll back environmental regulations, sell off public lands, allow weapons makers to sell any gun to anyone at any time, and other business-friendly moves. With these actions, President Trump has made clear that he regards complete corporate freedom as the only kind worth preserving, even if it comes at the expense of our collective freedom to live safe, healthy lives.

Trump is not the first president to think this way. It was Ronald Reagan who, in many ways, assembled the deregulatory engine Trump has now supercharged. Over the last 30 years, ever since Reagan declared “government is the problem,” we have seen a steady disinvestment in the institutions and policies that promote health, all in the name of placing private enterprise first in our national life. This disinvestment has resulted in poorer health. After decades of attacks on the structures that keep our air and water clean, our workplaces safe, and our economy fair, our health has lagged behind that of our peer countries, even as our healthcare spending has skyrocketed.

This trend reflects more than the triumph of a political ideology. It reflects something fundamental we have lost—a respect for basic public goods in this country. Public goods are common resources that everyone can access without excluding anyone else. Parks, clean air, safe roads, public schools, national security—these are all examples of public goods. Health, too, is a public good. It is a product of our collective investment in improving the social, economic, and environmental conditions in which we live. When we neglect this investment, when we place the profits of some over the well-being of all, we invite poor health for ourselves, our families, and future generations.

If the United States had gotten its way at the World Health Assembly, it would have done much to harm health, making it harder for mothers to make informed decisions about how best to care for their infants. As bad as this episode was in isolation, it pales next to the larger danger it represents. It suggests an administration that reflexively puts the interests of wealth and industry first, heedless of the effect that doing so may have on health, international cooperation, or even its own near-term political interests, to say nothing of the public good. This attitude threatens to accelerate our disinvestment in public goods precisely when we should be reversing it. In an age when unfettered private interests have fueled generation-defining challenges like global inequality and climate change, it is only a commitment to public goods that can truly create a healthier future.

Sandro Galea is the Robert A. Knox Professor and dean of the School of Public Health. He can be reached at sgalea@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


13 Comments on POV: Trump Administration’s Position on Breastfeeding Is “Deeply Unsettling”

  • Dan on 07.17.2018 at 8:39 am

    I wonder whether those who support the Trump administration will be willing to share their views on this particular issue. It is possible, even inevitable, to disagree with some actions of those you support. I don’t know whether this is one you agree or disagree with.

  • Y on 07.17.2018 at 9:30 am

    I read the NYTimes article and likewise thought it unsettling. I couldn’t agree more with Galea that the common theme is a loss of “respect for basic public goods” in the US. Great article

    • Jim on 07.17.2018 at 9:41 am

      Yes also agree that this is about profit over people. But on the other hand when is the last time people actually took advice from a government PSA seriously? Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign to drugs would have been a smashing success if people actually cared what government wants/supports. When people make choices what the government supports never factors into that consumer choice. It’s just upsetting seeing how easy it is to buy government, both the left and right have been selling our country for decades.

  • Amanda on 07.17.2018 at 10:53 am

    So I have an problem with you taking issue with what the Government did.
    1. it is not the place of the government to decide whether I breastfeed or not. Actually it is no one’s business but mine, my husband, and my medical team.
    2. I was not able to breastfeed two of my children due to health issues – one in particular where the baby’s health were affected by my breast milk. If we take your stance then I would not have any options for my child when he/she rejects my breastmilk.
    Please stay out of individuals choices – you are as bad as the government trying to make personal choices for women. The choice to breastfeed is very personal and should not be interfered with by any person other than the women who’s breast it is.

    • Ellen on 07.17.2018 at 12:24 pm

      Hi Amanda, just wanted to clarify that nobody (the government or Dean Galea) is trying to make a personal decision for you or anyone in regards to breastfeeding. Dean Galea’s point is that there is a plethora of scientific evidence showing the vast benefits of breastfeeding. The US Government should be encouraging practices that lead to public health advancements (i.e. breastfeeding).

      Of course not everyone can or wants to breastfeed and that is completely fine. Dean Galea and the NYT made a point that Trump is denouncing breastfeeding and instead supporting for-profit companies that make formula. That is the problem – nobody is trying to tell anyone what to do – but US Government SHOULD be encouraging healthy practices among its citizens. We cannot deny the vast health benefits of breastfeeding, so whether or not you choose to breastfeed is your choice, but the public SHOULD be informed of these benefits and it is the Government’s responsibility to stand by their public and promote health.

    • Kayla on 07.17.2018 at 12:52 pm

      You completely missed the point. Also, they weren’t going to stop production on formula and let babies starve, obviously. But good job relating this entire article solely to yourself.

      • An Barry on 01.22.2019 at 8:33 am

        Big breastfeeding advocate here. Do not get how you make the leap to Trump not supporting breastfeeding. As a Republican, my instinctive orientation is personal tesponsibility: the problem is not the existence of formula, it is lack of societal support and encouragement for breastfeeding. My God, you guys twist EVERYTHING that poor man says.

      • An Barru on 01.22.2019 at 8:34 am

        There we go, let the liberal namevalling and personal attacks begin! PLEASE grow up.

    • Andrew on 07.17.2018 at 5:03 pm

      I agree. This UN resolution is the product of busy-bodies that need something to do.

  • Zev Braun on 07.17.2018 at 12:31 pm

    Bravo Dean Galea. I couldn’t have said this better myself.

  • Andrew on 07.17.2018 at 5:01 pm

    This is a non-issue. There is absolutely nothing stopping mothers nursing as they see fit. The UN resolution is the product of busy-bodies that need something to do.

    • Paul on 07.18.2018 at 1:10 am

      I agree!!

    • Ellen on 07.18.2018 at 11:24 am

      This resolution was put forth by the World Health Assembly, which is the decision making body of the World Health Organization (an agency of the UN). This isn’t the product of busy-bodies that “need to do something” – it is LITERALLY the job of the WHA/WHO…

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