Monday, August 24, 2015

Breast milk for the brain

There is a reason why I don't summarily dismiss the concerns that people--typically the sincerely religious--have about issues like contraception, abortion, blood transfusion, organ donation, and more and, hence, their opposition to them.  I understand their worries that all those--and more--further diminish our existence to a mere composite of materials.  An assembly of components that then dilute, or even wipe away, the meaning of our existence and the answer to fundamental questions about life and the universe.  After all, like them, I too often find myself questioning what this is all about, even through my secular and atheistic progressive lenses.

Inquiring into our existence means that I am left wondering about a whole bunch of things, every single day.  To such an extent that sometimes I wonder if I will be better off if I stopped thinking.  I watch a movie and I think.  I listen to a song and I think. I read something and I think.  I think about what I think.  Of course, all the thinking is for naught when I am but a wannabe.  But, I think about that too--on how much I am a wannabe, a fake! ;)

In trying to make meaning of this existence, I have a hard time understanding many of the "developments" like the market for breast milk.  We live in strange times of sperm donors, egg banks, breast pumps, and now even frozen breast milk. It appears that an overwhelming majority are accepting of these new material constructs our existence, while I--an atheist--am with a minority, who are usually uber-religious, thinking and worrying if all these are, ahem, kosher.

So, yes, in this scientific and technological world of ours where capitalism governs our lives, a market for human breast milk has been created.
What are the sources of supply to meet this demand? One source is donations that happen though the 19 locations of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, as well as other donor organizations. But there are also for-profit companies emerging like Prolacta Bioscience and International Milk Bank which buy breast-milk, screen and test it, sometimes add additional nutrients, and then sells it to hospitals. There are also websites that facilitate buying and selling breast-milk.

This market is one where prices are fairly clear: the for-profit companies typically offer moms $1.50- $2 per ounce for breast milk, and end up selling it to hospitals for roughly $4 per ounce. Quantities are less clear, although for a rough sense, the nonprofit Human Milk Banking Association of North America dispensed 3.1 million ounces of breast milk in 2013, while a single for-profit firm, Prolacta, plans to process 3.4 million ounces this year.
Seriously, you don't think this is one strange world that we have created, and will be passing it along to future generations?  We spend a lot of our time on all things trivial, but we don't pause to think about what it means to the meaning of our existence if there is a market for breast milk?  Either I am messed up, or we are all messed up ;)

Consider the following from that same source:
Earlier this year in Detroit,  a company called Medolac announced a plan to purchase breast milk. It received a hostile open letter with a number of signatories, starting with the head of the Black Mothers' Breastfeeding Association. The letter read, in part:
[W]e are writing to you in the spirit of open dialogue about your company’s recent attempts to recruit African-American and low-income women in Detroit to sell their breast milk to your company, Medolac Laboratories. We are troubled by your targeting of African-American mothers, and your focus on Detroit in particular. We are concerned that this initiative has neither thoroughly factored in the historical context of milk sharing nor the complex social and economic challenges facing Detroit families. ... Around the country, African-American women face unique economic hardships, and this is no less true in our city. In addition, African American women have been impacted traumatically by historical commodification of our bodies. Given the economic incentives, we are deeply concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies.
The breast milk market is then ripe for "outsourcing"?  Similar to how there are wombs for rent in India, will the market then establish a breast milk supply chain?  

I worry that most fellow-humans do not seem to want to think about such trends that are overwhelming us.  Perhaps because most people do not want to think about why we exist?  They don't care about all these?  It is not that I have answers to most (all?) of the questions that pop up in my head.  I have no answers at all.  None.

Hmmmm ... wait a second.  Maybe I am messed up because of the breast milk that nourished me.  Which means, we know who is to be blamed for my thinking about all these--the same one who is to be blamed for my fascination with coffee, with cooking, with cleaning, ... ;)



Anne in Salem said...

Breastfeeding has been outsourced for pay for centuries, except it used to be called a wet nurse.

There is much about a market for breast milk that concerns me, but the premise of it does not. I wonder more about the hygienic qualities of the milk, the shelf-life of frozen breast milk given its perishable nature, etc. Is there DNA in breast milk? It seems like there would have to be. Why doesn't a baby's body reject milk from someone else? I wouldn't give my child frozen breast milk for anything in the world.

As to the concerns of the women of Detroit, I wonder two things. One, how many years has it been since a Black woman's breasts were commodified in the market of milk-sharing? If the company had not recruited Black women, would the same group have cried discrimination? Relative to the final concern, perhaps there could be a per day limit on contributions to prevent the diversion of milk for profit from the seller's children.

That is enough thinking for the day. Good night.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, I intentionally left "wet nurse" out of the discussion. Because, a wet nurse was not any anonymous and faceless commercial interaction. The wet nurse and the baby developed a relationship that continued on for the rest of their lives.

This modern day breast milk for sale across miles is such a contrast to that. It is like how we have no idea who made our iPhones or grew the rice we eat. As I often remind students, the market doesn't care--but we humans need to pause and think about the marketization of every aspect our living. And that kind of thinking we don't do :(

Ramesh said...

I don't have the qualms that you have. If we can have a market for blood (you do have to pay for blood), and you source blood from a blood bank anonymously, what is the problem with breast milk.

And as Anne says, a wet nurse has been around for centuries. Why does anonymity change everything ?

Nobody is forcing anybody to adopt this. In fact the product wouldn't survive if consumers out of their own free choice didn't want it. Assuming that the product is safe (we can trust the FDA to ensure that Anne),then I would not object if somebody were to use this of their own free will.

Ramesh said...

And yes, you do think too much. I have been saying this for years now :)

Sriram Khé said...

I am not surprised that you two are at ease with this market for breast milk. You are being true to your political-economic convictions.
As I noted, there is a HUGE difference between a wet nurse and frozen breast milk from somewhere. The wet nurse recognizes the human element in that and a relationship develops. As for an economic transaction for breast milk, one can easily extrapolate from there into more troubling ethical issues. I am surprised at how casually you two are dismissing all those ethical issues by simply waving a consumer choice flag!