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Choice is a Red Herring



Like cigarette smoking, breastfeeding is a public health issue, not a freedom of choice issue. Obviously, US women feel free to choose not to breastfeed; most of them do. If women were actually intimidated into breastfeeding, we would have a breastfeeding culture. Instead, we have a bottle-feeding culture in which 67% bottle feed. Only 33% of mothers breastfeed. If there is, in fact, any social pressure to breastfeed, it certainly is not effective. I would argue, that the social pressure is to bottle-feed.


The tragedy is that the breastfeeding choice issue is a formula industry tactic. Here’s how it came to be. When, in December 2005, the Massachusetts legislature became the first in the US to prohibit formula sample bags in hospitals, then Governor Mitt Romney pressured the Public Health Council to rescind the ban. The council successfully resisted his pressure until he fired and replaced three members just prior to a vote on the ban; in May 2006 it was rescinded. Less than two weeks later, Romney announced a $66 million deal with Bristol-Myers, the world’s largest formula manufacturer, to build a pharmaceutical plant in Devens, Massachusetts.

In June of that year, Massachusetts state representative Helen Stanley (D-Second Essex) introduced House Bill 2257 to protect a new mother’s right to receive formula sample bags in the hospital. The wesbite, momsfeedingfreedom.com—created to oppose the Massachusetts ban—hosted a petition in support of this bill.


At the time, the website, momsfeedingfreedom.com, was registered to eNilsson, an international web consulting firm whose clients included Romney for President. Now it openly states that it “was made possible by a grant from the International Formula Council. “A mirror site, babyfeedingchoice.org, is copyrighted by the International Formula Council.


The US accounts for half of the $8 billion a year global formula market. The formula industry spent $50 million dollars in one year to undermine the US Health and Human Services Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign (June 2004 to April 2006). In 2006, the formula industry spent $100 million on formula advertising in the Philippines (nearly half of the Philippine Health Department’s entire annual budget of $239 million) to overturn new health department regulations that would have prevented formula companies from targeting children under two with advertising.


It is naïve to believe that the formula industry’s distribution of formula to you is an innocent gift. A “gift” of formula is like a “gift” of a pack of cigarettes when you’re trying to quit smoking; it will undermine your resolve. The formula company has bought your name and address from the hospital, without your knowledge, and will now solicit you for sales. Do you really want this commercial intrusion into your life?

Free formula samples are a social justice issue because they involve the exploitation and objectification of women, the very issues that feminism resists. These are issues around which all women and all thinking citizens should be united. When one spouts the choice issue while, at the same time, feigning support of breastfeeding, one becomes an unwitting pawn of the formula industry. Does it really need any more help?

And, don’t forget to sign the Public Citizen petition. Nearly 13,000 have signed it so far.

Peggy O'Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded Mothering.com in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.


Tags: babyfeedingchoice.org, breastfeeding, Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign, Bristol-Myers Squibb, cigarette smoking, Devens, eNilsson, Helen Stanley, International Formula Council, Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, momsfeedingfreedom.com, Philippines, pregnancy, Public Health Council, US Health and Human Services


Comments (54)

My problem with breast feeding, like my problem with cigarettes, is keeping them lit.
Great article! Thank you for that. One small tic - hospitals that sell patient info are in violation of HIPAA. Big penalties for doing that. Most likely the contact info comes from Birth Registries and from any purchase mom makes for maternity or baby items. Even if you pay cash, you get coupons on the back of you register receipt!
Quite right, Peggy! Comment from a mother from a country where breastfeeding is the norm, having her baby in the UK: 'The midwife kept asking me (ante-natally), do I want to breastfeed my baby? Of course I said, do you think I want my baby to starve? Then, gradually, I realised that the other mothers in the group were all making a decision - and some of them would not breastfeed their babies at all! In my country, we give the supplement if something goes wrong, but everybody breastfeeds of course!'
I have no children (yet), but many of my friends are family-making right now, so I buy a lot of shower presents and such. Somehow along the way, my name has ended up on a mailing list which has been sold to numerous formula manufacturers. At first, this was simply annoying - Oh great, more junk mail to feed to my recycle bin. But then, one day, I received a request to take a survey about "feeding choices" and be entered into a prize drawing. The mailer about the "survey" looked like official documentation, not your typical glossy advertising, and it was full of technical sounding language, as if the end result was for research.
Great article! It is understandable that even a threatened decrease in market share from intentions on the part of public health/governmental institutions to increase breastfeeding leads to the formula companies pulling out all the stops to throw money at the problem. Sad, though, that these companies are able to buy and bamboozle their way into the public heart and purse, by robbing women and baby of their right to breastfeed. And in the name of choice? These companies are restricting the choice of good health for women and their children.
I'm expecting baby #6 in june and recently purchased maternity wear from motherhood maternity.com and ever since my order I have been getting e-mails from Enfamil and now recieve Parenting Magazine (which I hate) so they must sell info to the formula companys also because I Do not use formula
I work in a hospital. It is against the law for the hospital to sell your address to a formula company. If the artical is correct then they are in big trouble!!!!
I breastfed all three of my girls until they were 2, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. However, I don't think getting some free samples of formula in the mail is robbing anyone of their right to breastfeed. Nobody is making you use the formula. You're a grown up and can make up your own mind. We have a cultural bias toward breastfeeding in this country. It's not the samples, it's people's preconceived notions towards breastfeeding and societies' attitude toward it. Until those change, it doesn't matter whether you get a sample at the hospital or not.
In light of the election, this is so important. I also appreciated the likening to the cigarette, very appropriate. It reminded me of my mom's stories of birthing in Romania. Each mom had to prove she could nurse, by hand-expressing some milk to show the hospital staff. It def took some resolve if u wanted to breatfeed. I am so thankful to have been able to nurse my 2 little ones till they were at least 2 years. I feel that it was a huge investment in their health that was totally free. For those thinking it is hard work, I remember at first wondering if I'll be able to do it for 6 months, but really it becomes effortless after the learning curve.
I just want to also make note of when babies are born in the hospital and are "small". (My sister's child was 5lbs. and 3 weeks early (because of an induction..turns out the Dr's were hypochondriacs and everything would have been fine if they let her go into labor naturally...anyway, that's a separate story) They gave her a bottle of formula to "fatten him up" when he was in fact normal weight for his age. She never breastfed after that because she was worried that he was too small. The boy had meat, anyone could have seen he wasn't malnourished.
Yeah I think Motherhood Maternity is a big culprit in selling the names and addresses (and due dates) to formula companies. I received two free canisters of the crap...I almost threw it out but ended up keeping it to show the childbirth class I teach. One of the first ingredients on the "sensitive" one is sucralose....mmmm...yeah yummy, give that baby some sugar! *gag*
I agree they shouldn't be offer in hospital. however I received free samples in the mail and I ended up having to supplement with my son. He had a tongue tie in the beginning which was clipped at three weeks but it did take a while for my supply to catch up and he's now 13months we are still nursing strong.
There seem to be two issues at play here. The first: that formula companies are actively and aggressively trying to convince new mothers to use formula. Of course they are -- their financial continuance depends on it. I don't agree with the tactics in place by formula companies. Formula companies have done some very nasty things. But then there's the choice issue, which I vehemently disagree with and feel like this article veered away from in favor of discussing the politics of formula. We can argue that formula companies are influencing that choice dynamic, but you cannot uniformly strip mothers of options by (ironically) telling them that they don't have a choice -- they just think they do. First, it assumes mothers can't make an active, informed decision for themselves. Second, even done with the best of intentions, telling mothers that the choice to formula feed is the wrong one is still robbing them of a choice.
Yes, but if you are a mother unsure of her decision, or are struggling or have family members pressuring you to use formula, and you have that can sitting there. You might be tempted to use it, and that right there is a very slippery slope.
I think that hospitals should be allowed to give away free samples of formula. When my twins were borne at 37 weeks they couldn't even suck out of a bottle let alone breastfeed. We had to feed them with a syringe for the first 48 hours. After that they started eating out of a bottle but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't get them to latch on. So when we left the hospital I told the nurses about our situation(we were both laid off, our employer had gone out of business 2 weeks before I had them)they gave us enough formula to last until the boy's wic started. If it wasn't for the nurses we wouldn't have had the money to buy formula. I continued to try and breastfeed every feeding but after 30 minuets of trying to get baby a to breastfeed then 30 minuets for his bottle then the same thing with baby b, by the time I was done I had 45 minuets before I had to start all over again. I tried for 3 months but they never wanted to latch on. So looking back I don't know what we would have done if the hospital hadn't helped us so much.
Actually sucralose is NOT sugar, but rather the chemical name of Splenda so even better lets have the first ingredient of their formula be artificial sweetener! Sucrose is real sugar. When I got cans in the mail I took them to the food bank. I figure if the mothers are not breastfeeding at least I can help make sure they have enough formula and don't have to water it down to get through the last week of the month until they can cash their next WIC check. My children nursed for 18 and 35 months and I try to encourage all to at least try.
I'm pretty sure that formula companies were using "choice" as a tactic way before 2005. It's not Mitt Romney's fault that formula companies are not exactly ethical when it comes to their marketing.
You're right, it is a choice and we're big girls and ought to be well enough informed to make that choice before the due date. But it does undermine the ability of *most* women to breast feed if that can is sitting around just in case. I gave birth to my first at a hospital and got my free can like everyone else even though they knew I'd be nursing. My milk took a while to come in, pediatrician was encouraging me to pump and get some milk into that baby somehow. But there's that can on the shelf and my hungry baby and my husband (who is very supportive of BFing) asks if he should mix some up. If I'd had the strength I would have thrown it at his head and I did toss it in the trash the next day. So even in a situation where I've made up my mind to BF, just having it there in the house let those words out of my support person's mouth instead of offering to get me some water or take the baby out for a little walk so we could try again in a few minutes. If I've made the decision ahead of time to use formula, I should have to bring it to the birth place with me along with baby's first outfit and a car seat.
But we could find a way to be compassionate in difficult circumstances without making policy that is bad for most because of just in case issues, kwim? you don't make policy based on worst case senario, you stay flexible for that. you make policy to benefit the majority, and the reality is that a study recently out of UCDavis has proven that handing out free formula lowers bfing rates. so, do we keep handing it out for the rare hard case, or do we ban it but then realize that some ppl need help and stay flexible enough to help them. besides, we'll never work towards more available milk banking if we are seeing formula as so acceptable, and donor milk is higher on the list for baby feeding than formula, so mom's in situations like yours would benefit more from more readily available donor milk.
i would dfinitely say the social pressure is to bottle feed. we hear breast is best but you should see the lookss i get when i breast feed my baby anywhere outside of my home. I knowno one would look twice if i was feeding her out if a bottle, and what new mom wants to attract negative attention to herself? you only ever get three months of maternity leave, and you are supposed to breastfeed exclusively for six. society puts us in a position that makes formula easy and normal, and breastfeeding the exception.
Mothering › Blog Posts › Choice is a Red Herring