Why you shouldn’t sell breast milk

In many ways we have come full circle, returning to a time when women were seen not as human beings, but as objects available for sale or exchange. Only now we call it choice.

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I can see the initial attraction of selling breast milk. My third child is due later this year and already I’m panicking about nursery fees. On the face of it, the latest trend, pumping for cash, seems the perfect solution.  The Telegraph’s Josephine Fairley agrees:

For those women who are over-producing – and perhaps on maternity pay, or who’ve dropped out of the jobs market to raise a family – selling breast milk looks like a potential way to help feed the rest of the family, too.

Way-hey! No more own-brand Coco-Pops for you, kids! This time we’re going to Waitrose and mummy’s tits are picking up the tab!

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. Much as I’d appreciate a cheque from Prolacta Bioscience – not least because of their Marvel comics-esque evil corporation name – I have serious misgivings about turning breast milk donation into something one does to pay the bills. While Fairley seems positively jolly about it, I can’t help but see it as yet another encroachment on women’s bodily integrity. There are some things upon which we shouldn’t be placing a price tag. What lies beneath our own skin is not a resource to be harvested; it is inseparable from who and what we are.

I’m conscious of how idealistic and naïve that all sounds. Like, hello! Given that we’re screwed under patriarchy anyhow, shouldn’t we women at least try to cash in at those rare times when having a female body seems to be an advantage? After all, men used to get paid for sperm donation. Isn’t this just the same thing?

Somehow I don’t think it is. Indeed, I find myself placing it on a continuum with paid surrogacy and sex work – all of those ways in which women are offered the chance to escape from poverty only by creating a false separation between body and self. A few hours with the breast pump might be less extreme than nine months of pregnancy followed by all the risks of labour, but it is not the same as having the odd wank.

To start with, these “women who are over-producing” don’t really exist. Lactation works on a supply and demand basis; stop feeding your baby and eventually your supply will dry up; start pumping extra in between feeds and you’ll produce more to compensate. What women are being paid to do is increase their milk supply, potentially at the expense of their own health (certainly their calorie requirements will go up; then again, if you’re serious about turning your body into a hyper-efficient lactation machine, you always could reduce business outgoings by relying on your own fat reserves until you’re skin and bone). Alternatively, one could of course produce a more reasonable amount of milk but just not give it to one’s own baby. What could possibly be wrong with women raising children in poverty feeling pressured to do that?

It’s important to remember that producing breast milk is not just something one does every once in a while, should one feel like it. If you are lactating, you’re in it for the long haul. You can’t take a week off here and there if you want to maintain the flow. If you’re producing an excessive amount of milk, you’ll be producing it even when the pump’s not around. Leaking, engorgement and mastitis are occupational hazards you’ll just have to bear. Meanwhile the person who’s paying you may take an interest in exactly what you’re doing even when you’re not expressing. What are you drinking? What are you eating? Are you on any medication? If your role is to produce that perfect “white plasma,” the contents of your body are no longer your own.

These might all sound like minor irritations, and most are irritations even when you are breastfeeding your own child or choosing to share milk for free. But there is a difference – a new element of coercion – when producing breast milk is done for payment. The feminist writer Jessica Valenti , while acknowledging many of the difficulties surrounding this issue, argues that “if we value women’s bodily autonomy we’re going to have to get comfortable with the choices she makes – whether it’s breastfeeding, formula feeding, or pumping for cash.” I think this is a false logic. We live in a world where there are many limitations on what we can and cannot do with our bodies, regardless of our own desires. I could not sell a kidney, for instance, even if I really wanted to.  “My body, my choice” was a specific phrase aimed at allowing a woman to resist a specific form of work (pregnancy) if she does not consent to it. It was never meant to override attempts to protect human beings from other forms of coercion, yet it seems to me that we are now particularly keen to jettison such concerns, if only in matters specifically relating to female bodies. 

I realise I could be accused of just being “a bit funny” about money being linked to things which I believe are more important than that. In some ways that’s true. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth asking what’s really taboo here. Recent reporting suggests that selling breast milk to major corporations is somehow more acceptable – less freakish, less disturbing – than simply sharing it with other women as an act of kindness. When a woman chooses to lease herself out, piece by piece – vagina, uterus, breasts – we see it as progress. When a woman chooses to share her resources freely, for no material gain, we think she is a sucker, duped into believing in generosity at a time when individual self-determination is all. Doesn’t she realise that women are being offered a way out of economic deprivation? Look! Liberation was there all along, inside our breasts, our vaginas, our wombs! We only have to give up what’s beneath our own skin! How hard can that be?

Very hard, I think. Indeed, I can’t help feeling than in many ways we have come full circle, returning to a time when women were seen not as human beings, but as objects available for sale or exchange, only now we call it choice. Our bodies are not a resource; we are our bodies, yet we are told that the cost of liberation has to be alienation from our own flesh. Writing on surrogacy, Katha Pollitt points out that “it is a means by which women sign away rights that, until the twentieth century, they rarely had: the right to legal custody of their children, and the right not to be bought, sold, lent, rented or given away.” And under what conditions are these rights now relinquished? It is not as though women now stand in equal relation to men. We can have our bodily autonomy taken by force, or we can be coerced through material inequality. What we cannot do is claim these rights that we are giving up were ever really ours.

But what of giving away one’s milk for free? It difficult to talk about love and generosity when the alternative is cold, hard cash. However, I think that as feminists, this is something urgently we need to address. We have grown cynical about the idea of feminism as kindness and of course, why shouldn’t we? Beliefs in sisterhood and female community have been appropriated and merged together with old-style patriarchal ideas about women’s “natural” instincts for care and self-sacrifice. It is difficult to prioritise compassion when to do so might be used as justification for one’s own oppression. Far easier to plump for a series self-contained, if ineffective, liberations for one. Just take the money and run. But what we are losing is so much greater. We’re not just giving up breasts, vaginas, uteruses; we’re hardening our hearts.

The author Elisa Albert recently wrote a deeply moving piece about allowing friends to breastfeed her son when she was struggling to do so herself. What she gained from the experience was not just nourishment for her baby, but “a circle of woman comrades, offering me fortitude and nourishment when I was bereft of all”:

Talking things through with these women – the mind-blowing experience of birth; the bad midwife; the free-floating anxiety that can take hold when you have no ballast; the pressure to accept “expert” opinion in lieu of advocating for yourself; the work of nursing, the value of nursing; the deep and wilful isolation of women from each other, of women from ourselves; this for ever altered landscape – I began to feel like a warrior, not a victim. We were sisters, and we traded our stories of valour and courage and survival and persistence. Being seen and heard by sympathetic women was more than a great comfort: it was sustaining, urgent and eminently sane.

For women to care for each other and share their resources between each other, for each other, is not an act of patriarchal submission. It is an act of radicalism. It contains within it the recognition that each of us has our own physical, social and emotional needs. To be willing to meet those needs in other women is to acknowledge them in ourselves. It is the difference between finding and using our own resources and seeing ourselves as resources for others to use. 

But what good is kindness to women still facing economic exclusion? What we need, more than ever, is political change and this cannot happen while we cling to the reductive mantra of “my body, my choice” in all cases. When individual choice overrides community, women are left on their own. It’s every mother for herself, piecing together childcare and work and feeding and shelter as best she can. That there are other ways to do this, should we be willing to pool our resources, is largely forgotten. But as the academic Michaele L Ferguson points out, “women have been oppressed not so much because they have been denied the freedom to choose their own individual paths, as because they have been denied participation in public life […] Women are free only to the extent that they are engaged in the political practice of creating, reimagining, and transforming the shared world in which they live.” This is something we have to do together, between ourselves, with those who have most resources – childcare hours, breast milk, security – willing to share with those who have least. That capitalist patriarchy refuses to do this should be all the more reason for us to seek out more valuable exchanges.

That women are people, not objects, is a founding principle of feminism. I think, however, that we have lost confidence in asserting this. We need once again to ask what it is that we are fighting for. What is our goal? How do we want our bodies and ourselves to be understood? How do we want to connect to each other? Above all, what would it mean to be free? It means something more than draining yourself dry because someone more powerful wishes to treat you as a machine. It means security. It means sisterhood. It means embracing the give and take that lets you know that you are not alone.

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