Can philosophy end the mommy wars ?

How do you feed your baby? It might sound like a simple question, but emotions run high around infant- feeding decisions: formula feeders are told that they are ‘selfish’ while breastfeeding mothers are labelled ‘exhibitionists’ for breastfeeding in public. A lot of the guilt, shame and blame surrounding how we choose to feed our babies, springs from philosophical mistakes in the way we think and talk about women’s bodies and behaviour —particularly when they become mothers.

Fixing these mistakes can help us to promote and support breastfeeding, while combating guilt and shame surrounding infant feeding.

The blame game

Many new mothers feel guilt and shame about how they feed their babies. Formula feeding is associated with guilt and blame, while women breastfeeding in public feel discomfort, humiliation and fear. Sociologist Elizabeth Murphy describes infant feeding decisions as ‘an accountable matter’; mothers feel they have to justify their decisions to avoid being seen as bad mothers. And because new mothers are so vulnerable, this can have devastating effects.

At the same time, how babies are fed is a major public health issue. A report by UNICEF UK estimates that improving breastfeeding rates could save the National Health Service (NHS) £31 million for each annual group of first-time mothers, by protecting mothers and babies from serious illnesses.

This means, we face a huge challenge: we need to promote and support breastfeeding without shaming formula feeders. I think philosophy can help by identifying mistakes in the way we think and talk about a mother’s body and behaviour.

Mistakes about mothers

I’ll pick out two mistakes in the way that we think and talk about how babies are fed. First, I think we implicitly assume that if breastfeeding is good, mothers must have what philosophers call a defeasible duty to breastfeed. If something is my duty, I have to do it. If I don’t, I should feel guilty. A defeasible duty is simply a duty that can be over-ridden or defeated. If I have a defeasible duty to do something then I have to do it, unless I have some good excuse.

Defeasible duties also make us accountable: if I have a defeasible duty to do something and I don’t do it, others can ask me why. If I don’t do my duty and I can’t give a good excuse, I should feel guilty and others can blame me. Here’s an example: I have a defeasible duty to teach my class. If I don’t turn up without a good excuse, I should feel guilty. My students can demand an explanation and if I can’t give one, they could blame me.

When we ask mothers to defend the choice to bottle feed, we treat them as if they have a defeasible duty to breastfeed. When we see arguments supporting breastfeeding as attacks on formula feeders, we are assuming that if breastfeeding is good, then mothers must have a duty to breastfeed. But when something is good, this normally only gives me a reason to do it. I can have a reason to do something without having a duty.

Reasons explain why something is worth doing or worth supporting, but they don’t make us accountable like duties do. Let’s look at another example: I have reason to run a marathon to support cancer research, but not a duty to do so. If I decide not to, I don’t need to feel guilty about it. The confusion between reasons and duties is bound together with another mistake: unless mothers have a duty to breastfeed, they should not breastfeed in public.

Breasts are highly sexualised. There are extremely strong taboos against revealing your breasts in public—unless, of course, you are a model or film star. So it might seem as you should only breastfeed in public if you absolutely have to. We might think we need a duty to breastfeed to break the taboo. This sets those who want to defend women’s rights to breastfeed in public, against those who use formula. But, of course, there is an underlying mistake.

It should be acceptable to breastfeed in public even if there is no duty to breastfeed. The right to breastfeed in public is based on the women’s right to continue her daily life while feeding her baby in the manner that works for her. Recognising these mistaken assumptions can help us to promote and support breastfeeding, while decreasing shame around infant feeding. We can recognise the reasons to breastfeed, and the right to breastfeed in public, without a duty to breastfeed.