Is President Trump taking aim at global efforts to promote breastfeeding? Editorial Board Roundtable

July 13, 2018

Is President Trump taking aim at global efforts to promote breastfeeding? Editorial Board Roundtable

The New York Times reported this week that diplomats and health experts were stunned earlier this year when the United States used heavyhanded tactics to try to derail a resolution at the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva encouraging breastfeeding as a better option to breast milk substitutes. Experts have argued that breastfeeding can reduce infant deaths and improve maternal health.

The resolution was eventually introduced, by Russia, and adopted with some changed language pushed by U.S. diplomats, the Times reported.

In a tweet, President Donald Trump called the Times story “fake news,” adding: “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”

The failing NY Times Fake News story today about breast feeding must be called out. The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2018

A critical article in the conservative online magazine The Federalist challenged the Times story for not naming its sources and said it was non-news.

The Times cited “more than a dozen participants from several countries, many of whom requested anonymity” in reporting that the United States first tried unsuccessfully to water down the resolution and then got Ecuador to drop its plans to introduce it at the May meeting in Geneva by threatening trade sanctions and an end to military aid. Other countries were also persuaded not to introduce the resolution, the story reported.

The resolution was eventually passed after being introduced by Russia, but with a few changes, according to the Times, including a statement that any breastfeeding recommendations should be “evidence-based” -- a standard that, to some, implies blind trials of the sort many health experts say would be unethical in a case like this, where existing evidence points to very negative outcomes from denial of breast milk.

A 2016 special series by The Lancet, the respected British medical journal, reported that “improved breastfeeding practices would prevent 823,000 annual deaths in children younger than 5 years of age and 20,000 annual deaths in women caused by breast cancer. Breastfeeding also reduces morbidity and improves the educational potential of children and probably their earnings as adults.”

Is the Trump administration trying to derail the World Health Organization’s efforts to promote the health benfits of breastfeeding because it would reduce profits for baby formula companies? Or is it just a matter of making sure that women who can’t breastfeed have alternatives, as President Trump argues?

The editorial board roundtable weighs in, and we look forward to readers’ thoughts in the comments. 

Thomas Suddes, editorial writer: 

More codswallop from the Flat Earth Society’s Washington chapter, aka the Trump administration. Next thing you know, the president will be insulting a NATO ally. Oh ... wait ...

Ted Diadiun, editorial board member:

I’d have an easier time buying this accusation if the Times hadn’t approached it in its customary style of an anti-administration, leftist opinion piece full of loaded words, masquerading as a “news” story. According to the Times, the United States “embraced the interests of infant formula manufacturers” over the health of infants, using “strong-arm tactics” that were “tantamount to blackmail” to “water down” the wording encouraging breastfeeding in “the latest example of the Trump administration siding with corporate interests on numerous public health and environmental issues” -- “in marked contrast with the Obama administration.” The alleged threats against Ecuador were presented without a single named source. Read the Times piece and then the story in The Federalist, which fleshes out the reasoning for the U.S. position on this issue, and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Sullivan, director of opinion, cleveland.com:

The anonymity demanded by so many who spoke with the Times is another disturbing sign that the Trump administration favors threats and sanctions to try to get its way internationally. But why, in this case, would Washington seek to pull out all stops to hamper a worthy and scientifically supported global effort to encourage more breastfeeding? Could it be President Trump’s attitude that all multilateral efforts are bad -- whether aimed at attacking dread diseases, lifting all boats economically or preserving peace and security effectively, that is, in concert with our allies? Or is it an anti-science stance? Or just a determination to put profits over the clear findings of experts about what promotes the general welfare and well-being? None of those possibilities is encouraging.

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