No respectable medical professional would argue against breastfeeding. It’s the cheapest, easiest way to ensure the health of a newborn – one that boosts a baby’s immune system and lowers a little one’s chances of developing everything from diabetes to ear infections.
And yet, somehow, Donald Trump’s administration seems to have found a way to come out against this wholly positive practice. This week, The New York Times picked up a story that had previously only been noticed by those who study malnutrition: that in early June, at the World Health Assembly, countries planning to back a resolution stating that breast milk is the healthiest food for infants faced threats of U.S. trade actions and withdrawal of military support.
For many, the takeaway is that Mr. Trump cares more about the US$70-billion baby-formula industry than the 800,000 children’s lives that could be saved annually if every newborn was breastfed. That’s probably true.
But telling mothers when and how to use their breasts is just the latest skirmish enacted on women’s bodies, the oldest war zone in the world.
This is, of course, not just an American problem.
On Tuesday, a group tracking femicide in Canada reported that 78 women have been murdered here in the past six months, usually by someone they knew.
Saudi Arabia is trumpeting its modernity in allowing women to drive, failing to mention it locked up the activists who fought for mobility the hardest.
And there’s the constant horror of rape as a weapon of war, with Syrian women the most recent to recount their systemic, gendered torture.
All of these places have long histories of women advocating for their freedom, and sometimes making gains – which is why watching the façade of women’s rights crumble so quickly in the United States is alarming.
The State Department under Mr. Trump has erased mentions of sexual and reproductive rights from its annual human-rights report. The government has pledged US$100-million toward abstinence-only sex education in public schools, although it’s been proven time and again to be ineffective in decreasing the rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
This is the backdrop against which Mr. Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh as his next choice for Supreme Court Justice on Monday. Judge Kavanaugh has defended employers’ right not to pay for employees’ birth control owing to religious beliefs, and last fall moved to block a 17-year-old undocumented woman from accessing an abortion.
Both Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League fear that he’d be the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 45-year-old law guaranteeing a woman’s right to abortion. Regressive sex-ed, scarce birth control and criminalized abortion: It’s a full platform of reproductive discrimination aimed at controlling women’s bodies and erasing their freedoms.
The frustration is that Mr. Trump wasn’t only elected by men: 53 per cent of white women who cast a ballot did so for him. That’s always been the trouble in discussing “women” as some monolithic group of people, all affected equally by swings toward greater freedom or more oppressive control.
The backlash in the United States is affecting the most vulnerable women first – pregnant women currently in immigration detention have reported being held in shackles while they miscarried, usually after being denied prenatal health care – but that’s always been how misogyny works.
Twelve of the women killed in Canada this year were Indigenous, a group that we’ve long known is at extremely high risk of harm.
Infant formula requires clean water, which is why, according to researchers from the University of San Francisco, it’s sub-Saharan African babies that have died in droves since the early 1980s when Nestlé began aggressively marketing its breast-milk substitute in that region.
And abortion wasn’t invented when it became legal, it just became safer. If it becomes a criminal act again in the United States, wealthy women will simply get on airplanes to access it. That’s why many of them may have felt perfectly comfortable voting for Mr. Trump: He intended to grab women by the genitals, but theirs were better protected.
Since the beginning of time, misogynist battles have always hurt the most vulnerable women first. The luckier ones watch, hoping that their own bunkers will keep their bodies safe.