Last week, Michelle Obama kicked off a campaign to promote breastfeeding as part of her Let’s Move initiative aimed at reducing childhood obesity by promoting exercise and nutrition. In particular, Politics Daily reports that Obama told a group of ten reporters at a strategy lunch that: “We also want to focus on the important touch points in a child’s life. And what we’re learning now is that early intervention is key. Breastfeeding. Kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.”
In particular, Obama noted the need to improve breastfeeding rates among African-American mothers, who are currently less likely than non-black women to breastfeed. Obama stressed that she doesn’t want to tell women to breastfeed, but that she wants to change practices (e.g. pushing more hospitals to be certified as “Baby Friendly”) to ensure that women who do want to breastfeed have a greater chance of success.
Breastfeeding and Partisan Politics
This is a big success for breastfeeding advocates who had been keen to see Obama speak out in support of breastfeeding for quite some time. However, that success has been somewhat diminished by the manner in which breastfeeding has suddenly become a partisan issue. Over the past week, numerous Republicans and conservative pundits have spoken out against a government role in breastfeeding promotion. For example, according to the Ottawa Citizen, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin said “We don’t need Big Brother or Big Mother to lead the Charge of the Big Bosom to persuade us of the personal benefits.“
The sudden fear among Republicans that Democrats want to mandate breastfeeding is an unfortunate turn of events. In the past, breastfeeding has been seen as a bipartisan issue that had the potential to bring women from both sides together. In fact, when the New York Times wrote about both Democrat and Republican women taking advantage of lactation rooms on Capitol Hill, political blogger Joanne Bamberger, also known as PunditMom, blogged that Breastfeeding Moms Equal Capitol Hill Bipartisanship:
Networking in non-traditional settings is nothing new for women. When our husbands think we’re just hanging out with the girls or managing the soccer game and birthday party schedules for our kids, we know that those relationships can be, and usually are, much more than just lost time. So when I read a recent New York Times story about women on both sides of the political aisle taking advantage of Capitol Hill lactation rooms, I thought that these so-called “boob cubes” could be one small step, if not the key, to the new American bipartisanship.
It is unfortunate that this opportunity to bring women together has turned into another reason for politicians bickering. As Amy West wrote for the Best for Babes Foundation, in It’s Not a “Nanny State,” It’s a Booby Trap Nation!: “when the media portrays this in a way that pits woman against woman, party against party, and mom against mom, moms are the ones who suffer.”
Tax Sheltered versus Government Purchased
Moreover, Republicans criticizing Obama’s efforts appear to be confusing two issues. When speaking out against Obama’s support of breastfeeding, they raise the issue of the IRS reclassifying breastpumps as medical equipment. However, this change was made as a result of a November 2010 letter to the IRS from 45 members of caucus and not in response to Michelle Obama’s efforts under the Let’s Move campaign.
Additionally, some Republicans statements are simply false. For example, Republican Michele Bachmann said: “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump, that’s the new definition of a nanny state.”
However, the government is not buying breast pumps for moms. Instead, it is simply making them a tax-deductible medical expense because they meet the definition of “medical equipment,” which is being “for the purpose of affecting a structure or function of the body of the lactating woman.” (Source: Ottawa Citizen).
Does everything have to be polarizing?
It is unfortunate that what was once an issue both parties seemed to be able to agree on has now spiralled into a heated war of words and war on moms. While Michelle Obama has now spoken out unequivocally in support of breastfeeding promotion, that shouldn’t have to signal a negative response from the other side.
Is there no common ground anymore?
Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.
Photo Credit: Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition