Donald Trump loves to tell us how much of an astute businessman he is. After all, he wrote The Art of the Deal. But his latest display of so-called masterful deal-making is a deplorable strategy best described as ‘Babies for Bucks,’ and mothers and children who will lose ”big-ly.”
A recent and widely shared New York Times article documented one of the most egregious recent examples of what advocates have been saying for years— corporate profit motives often undermine what’s best for public health. According to the article, the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva in May attempted to water down the relatively innocuous language in a breastfeeding resolution that was expected to pass without any fuss. When that didn’t work, U.S. members used intimidation tactics, including threatening to cut crucial military aid, to try to browbeat smaller nations (such as Ecuador) into refusing to support the resolution. Many breastfeeding advocates who attended the meeting shared their astonishment over this abrupt turn of events in real time on social media. Ultimately, the resolution prevailed.
“The fight to improve maternal and infant nutrition shouldn’t be a fight. But it has become a global multi-front war being fought every day in every country by industry lobbyists and government officials who don’t always have women’s and children’s best interest at heart,” says Lucy Sullivan, executive director of 1,000 Days, a leading advocacy organization working in the U.S. and around the world to improve maternal and young child nutrition—particularly during the critical 1,000 day window between a woman’s pregnancy and a child’s second birthday. These events provide a strong indication of how low the administration has allowed its representatives to go in protecting business interests.
Although I believe breastmilk substitutes should exist for all infants who need it, and for all mothers who have truly informed decision-making when choosing it, I do not believe corporate interests, threats and intimidation should exist anywhere in public health decision-making. Yet these seem to be the hallmarks of Trump’s personality and his strategies, even when those who are most negatively affected are vulnerable infants. Babies for bucks, apparently, are not a problem for him, and babies for border walls are not either.
After all, it was Trump who recently and shamelessly used infants and toddlers as political pawns to gain leverage with Democrats to gain funding for his border wall, while also sending a powerful warning to would-be migrants about the emotional consequences of illegal border crossings. Families were separated, and breastfeeding infants and toddlers were ripped away from their mothers. The full impact of this ‘deal’ will be playing out through emotional trauma in these children for years.
But this comes as no surprise. Earlier this year, Republicans used the health care of nine million children via the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as a bargaining ‘chip’ (pun intended) to force Democrats into averting a government shut down without a separate immigration deal. Clearly, Trump may not be able to correctly count crowd size, but he certainly knows how to maximize the value of children for his own gain.
In the book, Pricing the Priceless Child, Viviana Zelizer, a sociologist from Princeton University, famously surmised that children are “economically useless but emotionally priceless.” Historically, this was not always the case. In the 19th century, children were viewed as only useful as labor or low wage earners, but nothing more. There was no legal compensation for the wrongful death of an infant because they could not perform any labor or earn wages, and therefore were considered worthless. Zelizer documents the transformation of children from units of labor to sources of love. As children gained sentimental value at the turn of the 20th century, it led to growth of the life insurance business, the expansion of tort law and the revamping of social policies about adoption and foster care. This evolution demonstrates the power of cultural norms to influence valuation and shift policy.
Children then became emotionally priceless to parents and financially priceless to business interests. The dairy industry needs infants as a critical market for the nation’s surplus of milk since, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in 2016, America’s dairy farmers were forced to dump 43 million gallons of excess milk. The soybean industry, another highly subsidized commodity since 1941, is the second base option for infant formula, and therefore needs formula-fed babies for its supply chain as well.
While businesses use babies for bucks, policies toward children have not improved, even though courts now award millions of dollars in compensation to parents who have lost their children. What has increased, however, is children’s “value” in the level of political, commercial and, even, media exploitation. Leveraging the emotional power of children while doing nothing to improve the actual lives of children is, quite frankly, diabolical.
Which brings me back to the Trump administration. Their commitment to destroying the environment, scientific credibility and infant and maternal health outcomes in favor of their incestuous relationship with big business seems to be bottomless. Big Pharma and Big Fake Breastmilk know that healthy infant nutrition actually serves as preventive medicine, and is one of the earliest intervention points for shaping your health trajectory. These companies therefore have a vested interest to directly or indirectly create conditions that generate demand for infant formula now, and pharmaceuticals in the future, since breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the prevalence of ear infections and Type 2 diabetes, and reduces the risk of certain cancers in women.
Years of scientific evidence shows that a baby’s best interests are met when s(he) receives the nutritional, developmental and immunological benefits of breastfeeding. Still, the goal of the $70 billion infant formula industry is to maximize market size by not only increasing the number of mothers who buy their products, but also the length of time they use them. Ultimately, public health and private profits are at odds because the breast milk substitute industry profits from the failure of breastfeeding. There’s no real political or commercial incentive to improve breastfeeding support when more formula-fed infants are needed for industry profits.
Further, there is no real incentive to improve policies for children, particularly when putting substantive policies in place actually removes some of their bargaining power. Emotionally priceless, yes, but strategically powerful, even more so. Essentially, for some, there is a vested interest in not providing all of the policies children deserve so that adding or removing such policies are poised for strategic political gain at a later date.
In the end, the best interests of infants and mothers continue to be sacrificed. The gross miscalculation of the billions in medical costs resulting from infants’ suboptimal nutrition provisions, coupled with the societal costs of compromised child and maternal health outcomes, will be America’s worst deal yet.
Kimberly Seals Allers is a writer, author, consultant and internationally recognized advocate for maternal and infant health. She recently founded Narrative Nation, a non-profit that co-creates narrative-centered, multi-media communication by people of color for people of color, to catalyze behavioral shifts to eradicate health disparities. Kimberly’s fifth book, The Big Let Down— How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, was published by St. Martin’s Press in January 2017. Kimberly is also a Women’s eNews “21 Leader for the 21st Century” for 2018.