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Michelle vs. Michele: Breastfeeding Wars Rise to the Top

You may have taken a break from the news about Wisconsin, Egypt and the budget battles to read about the fabricated "debate" over breastfeeding supplies. I write "fabricated" because Rep. Michele Bachmann has created an argument over First Lady Michelle Obama's decision to support tax breaks for breast pumps for mothers. From Politico:

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann ripped Michelle Obama on Tuesday, speculating that the first lady might one day run for office, and accusing her of trying to implement a “nanny state” based on her newest push to get mothers to breastfeed their children in order to help combat childhood obesity.

Bachmann wrongly states, on last Tuesday's Laura Ingraham radio program, that the federal government would be paying for breast pumps and related supplies for mothers who need to pump, either because they are working (and, by the way, pay their own taxes) or because they are home with their babies, maybe on maternity leave (if they are lucky enough to get family leave), and have decided that breastfeeding is the best option for them and their babies. But Bachmann continues to spew misinformation and rhetoric in place of truth,

Bachmann continued, “...To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies. You wanna talk about the nanny state? I think we just got the new definition of a nanny.”

After all, tax deductions for acne cream and denture adhesive are allowable but since those aren't politically expedient, I suppose Bachmann is less concerned. Originally, breast pumps and nursing supplies did not qualify for tax breaks or deductions. In fact, after extensive complaint and feedback from advocacy groups, health groups, individuals, and President Obama himself, the IRS changed its policy to allow families to use their own pre-tax dollars, through their flexible spending account, to cover breast pumps or to be able to deduct the cost of breastfeeding supplies from their taxes.

Bachmann's name has appeared all over the media these last few days but not in reference to our 15 million unemployed Americans, or our inflated deficit. Despite Republican claims that they'd jump to action and work to remedy these critical issues for Americans, they've failed miserably thus far. Rep. Bachmann is instead enraged over our First Lady's focus on reducing obesity and promoting breastfeeding. Though I'll say for the record that I do not believe our obsessive focus on weight, as a health issue, in this society is ultimately helpful, I, and Michelle Obama, are far from alone with our concerns about feeding newborns and young children.

I have written extensively about feeding babies; breastfeeding, bottlefeeding, and the societal support system necessary to improve the health and lives of our mothers and babies. Bachmann is certainly not the first legislator or pundit to make bones about the heresy of supporting mothers who chose to breastfeed. Time Magazine's Joe Klein called health reform "slovenly and...ridiculous", in part, for its measure which allows working mothers who breastfeed mere minutes to do so and a space to pump, in the workplace.

It's not Bachmann's job as a lawmaker to rail against anything and everything she personally doesn't like. In this, Republicans seem to excel. Bachmann, in particular, reasons that because she had five children, all of whom she breastfed, without using her own pre-tax dollars deposited into a flexible spending account or tax deductions to cover the costs of her breastfeeding supplies, then, by extension, no American mother should have the opportunity to do so either.

In an email to RH Reality Check, Paige Hall Smith, Director for the Center for Women's Health and Wellness at UNC Greensboro, a sponsor of the annual Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium,  juxtaposes Bachmann's opposition to governmental policies which support breastfeeding to her stance supporting governmental policies which intrude upon a woman's right to another health care decision - access to abortion,

The recent efforts by the First Lady and the Surgeon General are not attempts by the “government to make decisions for people”, but are efforts that seek to enable mothers to make their own best decisions for themselves.  Rep. Bachmann is a long-standing opponent of women’s right to choose and her opposition to polices and programs that support breastfeeding governmental suggest that she is now encouraging governmental intrusion into other aspects of women’s reproductive life.

There are millions of American mothers who do not receive any sort of paid family leave. They return to work almost immediately and, in the struggle to feed their babies and maintain a job, they must pump their breast milk during the day. Using a breast pump, and related supplies, which can be extremely costly is a medical or health care related expense. Here's why.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is part of our federal government. One of the CDC's projects, Healthy People 2010 (now Healthy People 2020), includes ambitious and clear guidelines for increasing breastfeeding rates for older babies. The World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and optimally for two years. The Healthy People goal is to promote the number of babies breastfed for one year. However, in the United States, while almost 75 percent of babies are breastfed at birth, by six months that number drops sharply to 43 percent. By the time babies reach one year old, approximately 23 percent of babies are breastfed. When it comes to African-American mothers and their babies the numbers are even worse.

Jamila Bey, writing for The Root, notes,

African Americans have the lowest rates of breast-feeding of any segment of U.S. mothers. In fact, the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a decline in breast-feeding initiation rates for black women from 60 percent to about 54 percent between 2004 and 2008.

These aren't numbers floating in the sky. They aren't political balls to be vollied back and forth. These are real women's and babies lives, lives that can be improved with our federal government's help. The  health goals established by our federal government for mothers and babies, in an effort to protect public health and, yes, keep health costs lower than they would be if we simply decided to follow the GOP "Government intrusion into the health of Americans is wrong except when we say it isn't," are critical for us all.

Yet despite the fact that our government has clearly stated its role in keeping Americans healthy, Rep. Michele Bachmann doesn't believe the government has a role to play in meeting these goals. To be clear, breastfeeding isn't simply a choice. It isn't something new mothers can just decide to do or not, in a vacuum. I'm happy that Rep. Bachmann had the space and support to breastfeed five babies. Had she been a single mother, with no support system, or needed to return to a lower paying, hourly job with no time or space to pump, or partnered but with no paid family leave, she may have made a different decision.

As Hall Smith told RH Reality Check,

It is disappointing that Rep. Bachmann, herself a working mother, fails to see the problems that many women face when trying to combine work and motherhood. All of us have to make choices on a daily basis about how we are going to spend our limited time, and use our resources.  And sadly for many women, and increasingly for many men as well, paid work and parenthood are incompatible; far too many parents must choose between paid employment and the health of their family. Because most workplaces do not provide the time and space for new mothers to pump or breastfeed, they are forced to discontinue breastfeeding after they return to work even when they would prefer to breastfeed.  

This isn't just about allowing American workers to use their own pre-tax funds to cover breastfeeding supplies. It's about creating an economic system which allows for us all to live healthy lives while being able to support ourselves and our families. It's not surprising but fairly ridiculous that Bachmann has chosen to make an enemy of American mothers, babies and the First Lady herself for working to improve public health overall, and the health of our babies first and foremost.

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