These days, the United States is on the outside looking in when it comes to global consensus on many things: Climate change, the Iran deal, and breastfeeding.
Yes, you read that correctly. Breastfeeding.
This spring at the World Health Assembly, the United States fought a resolution to encourage breast-feeding, according to a new report by the New York Times. The resolution, which was based on decades of scientific research, encouraged countries to limit false or deceptive advertising of breast milk substitutes, and called on governments to publicly support breastfeeding.
Hundreds of government delegates at the assembly expected the resolution to be approved swiftly. But then the United States stepped in and took the side of infant formula manufacturers.
At first, the U.S. delegation tried to just water down the language in the resolution, but when that didn’t work, they began to threaten and bully countries who were supporting the resolution.
Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, told The Times that what occurred was “tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health.”
Ecuador, which was slated to introduce the resolution, was the first country targeted by American officials. The Times says the U.S. threatened trade wars and the removal of military aid, among other things:
The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.
The showdown over the issue was recounted by more than a dozen participants from several countries, many of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation from the United States.
Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico and the United States.
Eventually, it was Russia that decided to introduce the measure. Interestingly enough, the United States did not threaten Russia like it did Ecuador. The resolution ended up passing, though the U.S. did succeed in getting the language altered slightly.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which said it did not threaten Ecuador, defended its decision to push back against the resolution.
“We recognize not all women are able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. 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,” a spokesman told The Times.
While it is crucial, of course, to acknowledge that breastfeeding is not an option for everyone, this resolution does not mandate breastfeeding. It simply acknowledges the scientific consensus that breastfeeding is the healthiest option for infants, and works to regulate infant formula manufacturers so that they are not lying to consumers.
Officials at the assembly this spring were shocked by the Trump administration’s reaction to the resolution and support for infant formula manufacturers, but perhaps they shouldn’t have been.
At the same assembly, U.S. leaders sided with the pharmaceutical industry and fought unsuccessfully against an effort to help poor countries get access to lifesaving medications. It also pushed, successfully, to get statements supporting soda taxes removed from guidelines for countries dealing with skyrocketing obesity rates.