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

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.