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Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that, nearly a year into the baby formula shortage, many families are still struggling to feed their infants. A recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that one-third of all households with formula-fed children had trouble obtaining adequate supplies in the last month. Since the February shut-down at a major manufacturing plant, social media has been aflutter with the frantic accounts of parents scouring physical and virtual shelves. Regulatory obstacles continue to limit supplies. This slow-moving food crisis in the “land of plenty” reveals how vulnerable formula-reliant babies are to the whims and catastrophes of the marketplace.

The solution is at hand, or rather, at breast. Because breast is in fact best; best for the health of the infant, best for the self-sufficiency of the mother and child. Fewer and fewer mothers, however, consider breastfeeding a first choice, or any choice at all. Women’s participation in the workplace conflicts with the rhythms and bodily demands of nursing. It’s awkward enough for professional women, but low-wage work makes nursing impossible. Amazon warehouses and Burger King franchises do not provide the privacy or time necessary to do the pumping routines that maintain lactation. And for all women, social revulsion, the absence of intergenerational support networks, and a lack of encouragement from most medical professionals create a climate where only the most determined and well-resourced will manage to meet the AAP-recommended benchmark of six months of exclusive breastfeeding. Not to mention that in a cultural environment where maternity has been displaced by “birthing parents,” and where surrogacy is widespread and normalized, many believe it is not “inclusive” to advocate nursing, and not “kind” to point out that breastfeeding is far superior to formula, by every measure. 

Did you know you can make your own baby formula with powdered milk, corn syrup, vegetable oil, and vitamin drops? As unsavory as that sounds, it is not dramatically different from what is in the cans and canisters at the grocery store, despite the reassuringly long list of artificial ingredients. Despite the scientific aura that surrounds the industry, the truth is that formula is an inert chemical concoction that resembles living breast milk in the same way a sex robot resembles a human lover. Breast milk is not simply a fluid suspension of isolatable nutrients. Breast milk is living and dynamic. It changes in response to the environment, the mother’s health, and the baby’s needs, supplementing and shaping the baby’s emergent immune function. It is portable, always available and fresh, and it is free. 

This last quality is its Achilles’ heel. No company makes a profit from breastfeeding; like the processed food industry, the baby formula industry is not interested in promoting its natural, unprocessed competition. There is a crucial difference, though. If the Cheerios plant goes up in flames, I can always eat a banana instead. But when a mother gives up nursing for formula, she is destroying the alternative. Unfortunately, once a mother stops lactating, it is not so easy to begin again. Formula babies are absolutely dependent on the artificial supply. No wonder formula makers invest so heavily in marketing to new mothers. Heavy advertising and generous coupons and discounts reinforce the message of the free sample kits wheeled out the hospital door with every new baby. Like drug dealers, formula makers know the value of getting the customer hooked early. 

The right to nurse is not included among the reproductive rights generally associated with mainstream feminism. Birth control and abortion free women from the bonds of their sexed bodies. In contrast, nursing seems to plunge women back into the sticky muck of female nature. Formula, like the pill, is sexually liberating: It makes a woman’s body just the same as a man’s. Mama, papa, or ma-pa can feed baby with a fluid that needs no body to produce it.

But if this is “liberation,” it comes at a high price. Health and well-being are compromised when women choose not to nurse their infants, for whatever reason. And formula is another in a line of technological substitutes for women’s natural functions that are inevitably leading to the devaluing of women as women. Medical and social organizations are scrambling to cross off “mother” and “woman” and replace these sturdy terms with the linguistic abomination of “birthing bodies.” But no matter the optics or the verbal spin, no baby comes into being without a woman’s body. The very technologies that promised to free women from the constraints of the female body are in fact transforming female bodies into easily exploited raw material for the reproductive fancies of those who can pay the fees. 

Meanwhile, men are taking hormones to induce their “breasts” to lactate. Or they are simply gluing bottle nipples to their chests, in an attempt to simulate the natural female body they wish they could have. It seems these men know what liberated women are trying to forget, that breast is indeed best.

It shouldn’t be left to the gender benders to advocate for breastfeeding as a physically and emotionally preferable way of keeping a baby alive. The Catholic Church has a long history of advocacy for protecting and sustaining family bonds. The seven Catholic women who founded La Leche League were influenced by the Christian Family Movement of the late 1940s, as well as a deep tradition of Catholic social thought that considers the family the most important social unit. Catholic anthropology informs La Leche League’s emphasis on sustaining the deep mother-baby attachment and viewing nursing as an expression of the created purpose of a woman’s body. Unfortunately, La Leche League has distanced itself from these Catholic origins and watered down its breast-only message as feminist demands for workplace equality have increasingly come into conflict with a Catholic vision of embodied motherhood. But the organization’s history provides an inspiring example of putting faith into practice.

Conservatives who are advocating for a renewed Catholic presence in American political discourse are beginning to discuss how policy might better support and sustain the family. In the baby formula crisis we see a stark reminder of what happens when the family is reduced to a consumer choice and when women turn to the marketplace to reconcile what a baby needs with what a woman must earn to survive. So let’s get back to basics. Infants belong at their mother’s breast. We’re just made that way. 

Samira Kawash is professor emerita at Rutgers University.

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