What is the value of breastfeeding? The answer to this question usually includes a rundown of the myriad health benefits for mothers and children, reduced healthcare costs or the intangible emotional connection nurtured in the mother-infant dyad. Now, a new program by a company called Medolac has given it a dollar amount: $1/ounce.
According to a New York Times Motherlode Op-Ed by Kimberly Seals Allers, the Oregon-based company with support from the Clinton Global Initiative and high-profile institutions, has created a program they claim will increase Detroit’s African-American breastfeeding rates by purchasing and reselling their breastmilk. Allers, a journalist and nationally-renowned breastfeeding advocate, leveled heavy criticisms against the program for paying mothers $1/ounce for the milk that they would sell to hospitals for $7/ounce. They propose that paying mothers for their milk will allow them economic freedom to stay home after giving birth. Allers also questions the ethical implications of this program:
After years of researching the cultural landscape of racial disparities in breast-feeding rates, I see deep-rooted problems with this plan. Targeting low-income Detroit women with the lure of climbing out of poverty by selling their surplus milk raises many ethical questions. It’s one thing to commodify mother’s milk, but to try to commodify a group of women — specifically black women, who already have a difficult history with breast-feeding — seems, a bit, well, sour. It’s all too easy to imagine how Medolac’s plans could become a part of a continuing racial and economic divide in Detroit and nationwide rather than part of the solution.
Medolac issued a statement challenging the strength of Allers’ statements because of her working relationship with a leader in Detroit community-based breastfeeding support quoted in the piece.
Despite the conflict between Allers and Medolac, significant questions remain about the real impact of this project. For example, it is hard to imagine that a lactating woman can produce enough milk to earn a living selling her milk at $1/ounce, yet still have enough milk to feed her own child(ren). Medolac’s focus on addressing infant mortality hits the right tone as the infant mortality rate in Detroit is one of the highest in the country - 15 in 1,000 live births, which breastfeeding is shown to reduce. The most recent data shows that less than 40% of African-American infants in Detroit are breastfed, so the concerns about a plan offering financial gain for breastmilk having the proposed effect are counter-intuitive.
At the same time, Medolac's inference that Detroit NICUs will offer the milk cannot be verified, raising concerns that the milk is making its way to other communities without benefiting the community in which the lactating mothers live.
Given these concerns, Detroit and national breastfeeding advocates, lawmakers and activists are questioning the practical and ethical nature of the program. Specifically, they've called on Medolac to address in detail the nature of the program and its affect on the Detroit community and mothers. You can read their statement and sign on in support of their efforts here.