US turned to threats to fight breastfeeding resolution: report

The United States turned to threats at the World Health Assembly in an effort to quash a resolution that sought to promote breastfeeding, The New York Times reported Sunday. 

The resolution was originally expected to be introduced by Ecuador. But the U.S. warned that if the country went through with introducing the measure, it would cut military aid and implement punitive trade measures, the Times reported. 

The resolution holds that breastfeeding is the healthiest option for young children, and pushes countries to limit the spread of inaccurate information about breast milk substitutes.


The U.S. pushed to couch the language in the resolution, including one part that pledged to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding.”

Caitlin Oakley, the national spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, the lead agency in negotiations on the resolution, said the U.S. opposition to the measure was not based on an “anti-breastfeeding” position.

“Recent reporting attempts to portray the U.S. position at the recent World Health Assembly as ‘anti-breastfeeding’ are patently false,” she said in a statement. “The United States has a long history of supporting mothers and breastfeeding around the world and is the largest bilateral donor of such foreign assistance programs. The issues being debated, were not about whether one supports breastfeeding.

“The United States was fighting to protect women’s abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies. Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies.”

In a statement to the Times, HHS argued that the original text would have “placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children.”

“We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons,” a spokesman for the agency told the Times. “These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.”

An HHS spokesperson noted that the U.S. has sought to promote breastfeeding around the world for decades — mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development — and that it shares that objective with other countries. The resolution, the spokesperson argued, “would have run counter to that common objective.”

The State Department declined to comment to the Times.

After Ecuador dropped the resolution, health advocates sought to find other sponsors, many of them countries in Latin America and Africa that rely on U.S. assistance, the Times reported. Eventually, Russia introduced the resolution.

The baby formula industry, which is dominated by U.S. and European companies, has seen growth in developing countries in recent years, as breastfeeding has become more common in wealthier countries.

According to the Times’s report, lobbyists from the baby food industry were present at the World Health Assembly meetings on the resolution, but there is no reported evidence that they pressed U.S. representatives to try to water down the measure.

The reported U.S. efforts are reflective of a broader pattern in how the Trump administration has sought to pressure countries to get behind its agenda. As the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly weighed a resolution last year condemning the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley warned that Washington would take note of the countries that voted in favor of the measure, which was eventually approved.

The U.S. also withheld funding from the U.N. agency charged with providing assistance to Palestinian refugees amid frustrations with the lack of progress in peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

–Updated at 9:27 a.m.

Tags breast feeding Nikki Haley World Health Assembly World Health Organization

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