Breast-feeding as religion

Posted: Nov 11, 2003 12:00 AM

One of the phenomena of our time is the passion surrounding breast-feeding. In Norway, for instance, it is now illegal to advertise baby formula. And America is probably not far behind. Whenever I raise this issue on my radio show, merely saying that bottle-feeding is OK renders me a villain in the eyes of many listeners.

The religious-like fervor for breast-feeding and loathing of bottle-feeding need to be explained. I acknowledge having no scientific basis on which to challenge the many scientific studies that point to the health benefits of breast-feeding -- such as fewer infant infections, fewer early allergies, getting the mother's antibodies, and so on. I do, however, believe that in a health-conscious home, these benefits are negligible.

On what grounds do I believe this? Common sense -- our built-in defense against nonsense -- suggests it.

Virtually my entire generation of baby boomers was bottle-fed. Yet we are the healthiest generation in human history. Moreover, it is among today's young people -- most of whom were breast-fed -- that we constantly hear about the far greater incidence of obesity, juvenile diabetes and children with asthma. Now, I surely do not attribute these conditions to breast-feeding, but if breast-feeding were all that significant a health benefit, this generation would surely be more, not possibly less, healthy than the previous generation at the equivalent age.

So the question remains: Why do all these healthy parents who had been bottle-fed now wage war against bottle-feeding?

One answer goes well beyond the issue of breast-feeding. It has to do with education.

In much of the West, the well educated have been taught to believe that they can know nothing and that they can draw no independent conclusions about truth, unless they cite a study and "experts" have affirmed it.

"Studies show" is to the modern secular college graduate what "Scripture says" is to the religious fundamentalist.

Thus, the question, "Was your bottle-fed generation so ill as children that you really believe breast-feeding makes a major improvement in health?" is of no importance to people passionate about breast-feeding. They have read the studies and heard the experts, and that is all they need to know.

But education alone does not explain the war for breast-feeding and against bottle-feeding.

A second explanation is the God-like status of health in the secular West. As G. K. Chesterton foretold a hundred years ago, when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. When people stop worshipping God, they begin worshipping many gods. Health, for example. In the name of Health, condoms are given out to high school students. In the name of Health, many parents would rather their teenager cheat on tests than smoke. And in the name of Health, women are pressured into breast-feeding.

The third explanation is the other major argument for breast-feeding -- the mother will bond better with her child.

This argument is even more remarkable than the health argument. At the least the health argument is rational, even if wildly overstated.

Is there a shred of evidence that adoptive mothers bond less with their children? Do women who cannot breast-feed bond less well with their child? Do women who breast-feed one child and bottle-feed the other love the breast-fed child more? Are men incapable of equal love of their children?

The bonding argument is also a bit scary. Are women who believe it saying that without breast-feeding, they would not have been capable of sufficiently bonding with and loving their child?

And if breast-feeding is indispensable to optimum bonding, why not breast-feed for a few years? Isn't more bonding better?

Many fine women and men are passionate about this subject. But the current war against bottle-feeding, which is a thoroughly wonderful gift of modern science, is just another sign of our morally confused secular world. Instead of fighting real evils, too many men and women -- and governments -- devote much of their lives to fighting trivia such as bottle-feeding and secondhand smoke.