Lactivism

Cristy Clark

Lactivism-150Courtney Jung; Basic Books (Distributor, Newsouth Books), 2015; 272 pages; $34.99 (hardcover)

Courtney Jung believes that breastfeeding advocates in the United States have unleashed a wave of coercive public breastfeeding initiatives that pressure mothers to feed their babies breastmilk, while providing little support to enable them to do so. She critiques the paucity of medical evidence underpinning the health claims made in favour of breastmilk, and argues that America is ‘using breastfeeding and pumping as a substitute for maternity leave.’

Jung is at her strongest when she is critiquing the neoliberal nature of public policy in America. Her analysis of the Obama administration’s breastfeeding initiatives, which appear to do little more than encourage women to pump breastmilk at their own expense while catering entirely to the demands of employers, is damning. Similarly convincing is her conclusion that these initiatives will do nothing to resolve ‘the deeply rooted social and structural problems American parents face in trying to raise healthy and secure children’, because breastmilk is no substitute for maternity leave, or accessible child- and health care.

Unfortunately, this incisive political analysis is subsidiary to her main argument, which builds on Hanna Rosin’s notorious article ‘The Case against Breastfeeding’ (The Atlantic, April 2009). Essentially, Jung’s central claim is that breastfeeding advocacy is to blame for imposing a heavy individual cost on American women and that ‘the costs of lactivism are not borne by individuals alone but by our society as a whole. By allowing some primarily privileged segments of the population to occupy the moral high ground, breastfeeding imperatives reinforces race and class discrimination by other means.’

To reach this conclusion, Jung relies heavily on Chapter 4, The End of Choice, in which she critiques a range of public breastfeeding initiatives, which she claims have turned breastfeeding into ‘civic obligation’. While Jung’s early description of the history of breastfeeding activism in the US 
is nuanced and sympathetic, her account starts to become 
one-sided when she documents more recent developments. Each of Jung’s policy examples could be interpreted in a range of ways, but Jung’s analysis is fraught with selective interpretation and a paucity of supporting research. Despite her earlier critique of the medical research in favour of breastfeeding, Jung relies almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence to recast each policy in a coercive and discriminatory light — a comment on Facebook, a chance encounter at a party, a blog post. For example, Jung argues that New York’s breastfeeding initiative Latch On NYC infringes ‘a mother’s right to choose how to feed her baby’, but supports this assertion with a single anecdote, a blog post, and a contested claim that formula is ‘kept under lock and key’ in hospitals.

This selective interpretation of Latch On NYC is minor when compared to Jung’s most sensational claim that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (‘WIC’) actively discriminates against mothers and babies who formula feed by denying them access to an ‘enhanced food package’. Jung must be aware that breastfeeding women need additional kilojoules and that babies who are exclusively breastfed need additional nutrients in their second six months of life. However, she ignores both of these facts, as well as omitting to mention the crucial detail that the WIC program provides formula to formula feeding babies in lieu of the ‘enhanced food package’. In fact, even after the introduction of this apparently discriminatory policy change, mothers on the ‘full formula package’ were still receiving packages with a significantly higher market value than those on the ‘full breastfeeding package’ ($1345 to $1028).

Buried within this book are a decent number of insightful observations about the range of ways that American society and public policy fail to promote substantive equality, particularly for women with young children, and the way this failing is hidden behind the language of individual responsibility. But these glimmers of nuance only serve to make the central thesis of Lactivism appear more starkly overstated. Given her apparent awareness of the heavy cost of America’s lack of labour rights and social safety net, it is unclear why Jung has singled out breastfeeding advocacy as her target. It’s almost as though she knew that a book attacking ‘Lactivists’ would be easier to promote than one focused on exposing the failings of neoliberal governance.

CRISTY CLARK teaches law at Southern Cross University.

(2016) 41(1) AltLJ 75
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