Catholic mothers debate breastfeeding and government involvement

Catholic mothers debate breastfeeding and government involvement

First Lady Michelle Obama
First Lady Michelle Obama


Although they agree on the numerous benefits of breastfeeding, prominent Catholic experts on motherhood are at odds over government attempts to promote the practice in the fight against childhood obesity.

Republican leaders recently asserted that Michelle Obama's efforts to increase breastfeeding among mothers in the U.S. were the work of an intrusive “nanny state.”

Experts Sheila Kippley – author and co-founder of National Family Planning International – and Terri Aquilina, writer and La Leche League counselor, joined the debate this week. While the two held the same views on the need to encourage breastfeeding, they differed on the topic of government involvement.

“If we want what is best for babies, we need to encourage moms to breastfeed,” Aquilina told CNA on Feb. 23. “Michelle Obama's main concern is preventing childhood obesity,” she added, saying that breastfeeding “is the right place to start.” 

Controversy around the issue began when Michelle Obama – who has made reducing childhood obesity a primary focus during her White House tenure – recently told reporters that breast-fed babies have a lower tendency of being overweight. Her remarks, coupled with the IRS releasing a new policy several days later offering tax breaks to women who buy breast pumps, set off an immediate round of criticism from political opponents.

Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-Minn.) accused the Obama administration of imposing a “nanny state” on mothers. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin quipped that Michelle Obama was trying to compensate for high milk prices.

Also wary of government involvement, Sheila Kippley said that although she agrees with the administration promoting breastfeeding, she is “not a believer in the government providing tax breaks for mothers to buy breast pumps.” 

Kippley is a mother of five and author of the 2005 book “Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood.”

“This is an excellent case that illustrates the need for citizens to take personal responsibility for themselves and their dependents,” she told CNA in a Feb. 24 e-mail. “The purchase of breast pumps is simply not a subject for federal, state, and city taxes.”

Kippley also noted that women who are able to stay home with their babies do not need a pump, and those who work earn a salary and should be able to afford one for themselves.

However, Aquilina – a mother of six who has counseled breastfeeding moms for 16 years through the international La Leche League – countered Kippley's stance on the issue.

In a Feb. 23 interview, she asserted that the First Lady's comments as well as the IRS  initiative are “not making a ‘nanny state’.” 

“If you can get a tax break for tools or uniforms and such, why not breast pumps?” she said. “I think our government should encourage healthy behavior.  Health care costs would certainly go down if more mothers breastfed.” 

“No one is saying that you have to breastfeed,” she underscored. “Saying that it is the best choice for babies is only the truth.”

Aquilina added that “we Americans do not like people 'telling us what to do'” or being made “to 'feel guilty.' However, breastfeeding is what is best for baby.” 

Kippley agreed that breastfeeding is the best option for babies and not only in regard to fighting childhood obesity.

“Michelle Obama is well-advised to promote breastfeeding in order to prevent obesity, but that is only one of many benefits,” she said. “What is most interesting is that many of the benefits for both mother and baby occur many years after the breastfeeding has ceased.”

According to Kippley, babies who breastfeed experience an overall reduction throughout their lives in conditions such as asthma, diabetes, leukemia, allergies, lymphoma and bacterial meningitis. Breastfed children also have a better immune system, increased response to vaccinations, fewer sick days and score higher on cognitive and IQ tests at school age. 

“If all mothers world-wide would exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months, one and a half million babies’ lives would be saved each year,” Kippley said.

Despite the documented benefits of breastfeeding, however, Aquilina noted that the cultural climate in the U.S. “makes it difficult for moms.” She observed that breastfeeding “is not well supported by doctors or employers” and that mothers “feel afraid to nurse in public.”

“We would have a healthier society if all mothers at least tried to breastfeed and if our society supported that decision,” Kippley concurred, lamenting the lack of encouragement for it on a local level.

“How many bishops, priests, parishes, pro-life groups and Catholic doctors promote exclusive breastfeeding?” she asked, noting the need for breastfeeding mothers to be supported at
Mass and other Church events.

Kippley also said that Church “has a unique opportunity to increase the physical and emotional health of babies and mothers alike” through its pre-marriage programs. Kippley said that if every diocese required engaged couples to attend Natural Family Planning courses that address the benefits of breastfeeding, the practice “would be increased considerably.”