Will a fertile woman's body ever be considered hers and hers alone?

Alicia Silverstone's breast milk sharing programme is intriguing, if slightly alienating for those who don't meet her "lifestyle" standards. While donating milk or being a surrogate is an incredibly kind thing to do it is too often regarded with paternali

Alicia Silverstone is launching her own breast milk sharing programme to enable parents to find donor milk without worrying about “what kind of lifestyle choices the donors [have] made”. Yes, Kind Mama Milk Share is for those who want their babies to have breast milk but not, one presumes, the sort that spurts from the likes of meat-eating, Mars bar-chomping, caffeine-swilling me. I have to say, I’m hurt. Half an hour with a whiny, RSI-inducing breast pump and you’d turn my produce down?

Then again, why shouldn’t those who want donor milk be fussy about the type they use? Is it fair to get all “beggars can’t be choosers” about this? After all, adoptive parents or those who can’t physically breastfeed have a right to form preferences regarding the welfare of their child. If you want to be picky about milk and you’ve got the donors to meet your requirements, is it anyone else’s business?

Apparently it is, although I suspect most of the current reporting is less in response to Silverstone’s exacting breast milk standards and more in a “ooh, milk sharing, weird!” way. Because we do find it weird when people with uteruses and breasts decide to loan out some of their reproductive functions to others. We shouldn’t, but we do.

I was aware of milk donation when I was breastfeeding and volunteering as a peer supporter. I considered it but never took the plunge, partly because I was finding it hard to keep my weight up while feeding one baby, but mainly because I suspected my milk would be rejected anyhow due to long-term medication I was taking. The pills were unlikely to have any impact on my son’s health but sufficient to make my milk fall below the standards required by the milk bank, which seems fair enough (although it does make me wonder whether Kind Mama milk goes through the same checks rather than just being certified vegan). I knew a couple of women who donated milk and I admired them for it. Expressing milk isn’t the most exciting activity on earth and sterilising all the pump components afterwards is just fiddly and annoying. It’s time- and energy-consuming (and potentially expensive due to all those extra calories you need to scoff). But it’s a great thing to do if it means breast milk is made available to babies in need.  

It’s odd that such a generous act is so rarely discussed, let alone celebrated. Then again, whenever a person undertake this type of labour for another - donating eggs, loaning wombs, nursing infants - we always seem to stop short of recognising it for the compassionate act it is. Surrogacy is still viewed with suspicion, the use of breast milk for anything other than feeding one’s own, self-produced baby is considered at best hippyish and at worst disgusting. Yet to do any of these things on behalf of another family can be incredibly kind.

Perhaps part of our mistrust comes down to fears of coercion or financial exploitation. I agree these things are a risk. All the same, it seems odd that we still do not permit women to end their pregnancies at will yet get terribly concerned about those who genuinely wish to donate eggs or give birth on behalf of others. Producing a new life may be a powerful act but the paternalistic way in which it is regulated smacks of fear and more than a little misogyny. We venerate the sacrifice but we don’t appreciate it.

To those who want children but are infertile or have miscarried or suffered stillbirths, the idealisation of pregnant women and new mothers truly hurts. And yet to those who are pregnant or have recently given birth, the lack of respect for the blood-and-guts reality of such a life-changing physical experience can be galling. We call it the miracle of life but we take it for granted. Yes, we all know how utterly amazing you are, but spare us the details. Who do you think you are, the first woman on Earth to give birth? Reproductive freedom  should include the right to share and the right to decide on the sacrifices one is prepared to make. Instead, perceptions of sacrifice shift according to how palatable a woman’s decision is in relation to social norms. An unwanted pregnancy is a mere inconvenience. A wanted pregnancy is a gift of love. A surrogate pregnancy is exploitation. Feeding one’s own baby is natural while giving milk to others is disruptive.

Of course, the fuss about Kind Mama Milk Share may be only partly about breast milk itself. There’s the broader association of Alicia Silverstone and breasts. As one People commenter puts it “I'd like to share Alicia's breast milk, but I want it direct from the source”. Sigh. No wonder it’s hard to be generous. Perhaps one day a fertile woman’s body will be considered hers, and hers alone, to give. 

Alicia Silverstone, who has launched a breast milk sharing programme. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.