As the mother of a newborn infant, I am struck by the normative ladenness of speech about, and imagery about, breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a surprisingly difficult technique to master, especially considering that it is a universal mammalian behavior. Were it not for lactation experts, midwives and volunteers, I and many other new mothers would never be able to establish successful nursing. Humans, to a larger extent than other primates, rely on imitation and teaching to transmit a variety of "natural" behaviors, such as foraging. Without being able observe other women who are nursing, it is very taxing and difficult to get a newborn to latch on and feed successfully.
Interestingly, Katie Hinde, a primatologist with expertise in lactation, has pointed out that contrary to common belief not nursing has never been a death sentence. "Hundreds of years before halfway-decent formula, infants were fed gruesome substitutes for breast milk (mushed bread and beer, say)—and although many more died than those who were nursed, many also survived." So it turns out that a choice about whether or not to breastfeed has existed longer than we currently acknowledge.
Ostensibly, information directed to new mothers is supposed to help them make an informed decision about whether to nurse or give formula. This information is often couched in agent-neutral, medicalized terms, such as "studies suggest that breastfeeding lowers the risk of sudden infant death syndrome and middle ear infection in infants, and breast cancer in mothers" and "the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life". But they are also prescriptive statements, directed at young mothers. They make truth claims, obviously, about the benefits of breastfeeding and the recommendations of the AAP, but they have an important social function, namely to make new mothers recognize the distinctive weight the claims have for them in particular. I am here drawing on Kukla and fellow blogger Mark Lance's Yo and Lo! They single out a group of people (new mothers) and in effect say "You ought to breastfeed if you have your baby's best interests in mind".
However, at the same time, nursing in public is still regarded as inappropriate, because of the sexualization of the human breast in western culture. This is the result of a long process that can be aptly illustrated by the decline and disappearance of a fascinating genre in religious art, the Madonna lactans (lactating virgin Mary). A popular theme in medieval and Renaissance art, it shows Mary nursing Jesus, thereby emphasizing his humanity and Mary's humility. However, the increasing depiction of breasts in pornographic context (a process accelerated with the invention of printing) and the increasing sexualization of breasts made this imagery increasingly inappropriate, until it was actively discouraged in the Council of Trent and disappeared.
There are many other hurdles, except nursing in public, that women who follow the health recommendations face. As I mentioned at the outset of this post, many women fail to establish breastfeeding, and I have over the past weeks witnessed several women in hospital and in baby cafés (informal places in the UK where you can get free breastfeeding and childcare advice) break down and literally in tears because they are unable to establish breastfeeding successfully. Moreover, despite official policies that allow women to express breast milk at the work place, it is for many women practically impossible to continue breastfeeding once they return to work.
In light of this, I find the discourse on breastfeeding with its medical, objective tone but clear targeting of new mothers highly problematic. If one considers this from a purely consequentialist perspective, one could say it is a good thing: the current discourse on breastfeeding has probably contributed to the rise in breastfeeding percentages in the United States and elsewhere. But given the emotional toll it exerts on women who are unable to breastfeed for various reasons, I find it ethically problematic.