Breastfeeding And The Right

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Though it didn’t receive much attention, not too long ago, Facebook updated its photo policy regarding breastfeeding mothers.

Not widely discussed in political circles, breastfeeding is still a controversial topic, and regularly makes local (and sometimes even international) news. Last year, for example, Pope Francis encouraged mothers to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel, no less, telling them: “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice, because they are the most important people here.”

Also last year, a Missouri mom named Laura Trickle faced a fine and jail time for bringing her nursing baby to jury duty (as a result of her activism, Missouri ultimately joined a handful of other states in exempting breastfeeding moms from jury duty.)

And earlier this year, it was reported that a Victoria’s Secret store told a nursing mom she couldn’t breastfeed in the store (but she could in the alley). So while this isn’t a front page story, it is an issue that isn’t going away.

Interestingly, a debate is taking place right now on Twitter between prominent conservatives who disagree on the appropriateness of doing so in public.

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As the father of two young children, I’ve become more attune to this issue, both in terms of the potential health benefits for babies, and in terms of the bonding experience between moms and babies. (Note: This is no way intended to shame mothers who choose not to breastfeed, but to instead empower those who do.)

I have also observed how frequently nursing babies must eat — and how impossible it would be for a nursing mom to relegate feeding her baby solely for private moments. (Requiring such a thing would ultimately mean a mother could literally never leave the house — never go to a restaurant or a museum or the park or a store.)

And, to be honest, the whole concept of encouraging breastfeeding is very consistent with the conservative philosophy to which I subscribe. What could be more traditional or natural?

If conservatives care about family values and defense of tradition, then this certainly meets the definition.

As such, conservatives should probably support letting nursing moms out of jury duty. And whether or not you want to legislate it, we ought to make it convenient for nursing moms in the workplace to have safe, clean and convenient access to a lactation room to pump milk or breastfeed. And no, we shouldn’t give anyone a dirty look when a hungry baby absolutely must be fed at the table next to us during brunch…

Don’t be surprised if issue could becomes even more divisive and political. It fits neatly into the “war on women” narrative Democrats have clearly signaled they like to push — and could potentially be the next front in the culture wars.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Interestingly, this is one of those rare issues — such as homeschooling — where the supporters make strange bedfellows — where Catholic and communitarian conservatives can agree with crunchy granola hippy-types.

The problem is that there are swaths of conservatives who could be bated into opposing the movement to remove barriers to breastfeeding.

There are a few reasons for this. First, this taps into a prudishness that is prevalent among some conservatives.

Second, conservatives tend to like business — and companies who sell baby formula have a financial stake in persuading us that their product is superior (for example, it’s much easier to measure the precise amount consumed by a baby via this method).

And third, a lot of conservatives have bought into a sort of sterile, suburban 1950s-style consumerist worldview that stresses convenience, speed, efficiency and individualism — which, perhaps, explains why many conservatives can be found driving SUVs to their McMansions.

Perhaps, the only legitimate reason for conservatives to be concerned at all is the sense that, in the case of the Facebook story, some activists might be using this issue as a Trojan Horse to chip away at any standards which would police the use of pornographic images on social media sites.

The problem is that opposing the posting of these pictures would cast conservatives against the vast majority of mothers who simply want to capture and share a very natural act.

In fact, as the Twitter conversation show above above demonstrates, it would even alienate very conservative moms.

There is an unfortunate trend in conservatism which leads many to simply reflexively rejects anything liberals seem to like. The problem with always playing defense is that you allow your opponents to define what you are for and what you are against. And, in this case, perceived opposition to breastfeeding wouldn’t just be arbitrary, it would pit conservatives against a lot of regular moms who aren’t even particularly political.

In some sense, concerns about the mainstreaming of breastfeeding are really part of the backlash against a culture that over-sexualizes everything. It’s understandable that cultural conservatives who are tired of seeing a culture become more coarse and promiscuous and permissive, might wrongly conclude that this is a hill to die on.

But I’m also reminded of the famous old joke about the Rorschach test where the man taking the test sees every ink blot as a sexual act, prompting the tester to declare the man is obsessed with sex. “You’re the one with all the dirty pictures,” the man replies.

The point here is that, biologically, breasts are primarily about food delivery for babies. If you or I want to sexualize something as natural and vital as breastfeeding, well that’s on us.