This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on September 17, 2007 at this URL.
On Friday’s episode of Real Time, Bill Maher introduced one of his “new rules,” “Lactate Intolerant,” in which he argues against breastfeeding in public. As he explained, he doesn’t want women showing their tits in public unless they are appropriately packaged for heterosexual male consumption. (Revealing what he thinks is appropriate, he made a snide reference to Britney Spears’ body in one of the other new rules, drawing a good laugh. My goal here is not to defend her, but only to point out that Bill Maher’s idea of an acceptable female body, along with many members of his audience, is incredibly narrow.)
For someone who claims to believe in science, Bill’s queasiness around breastfeeding seems more than a little bit irrational. A huge body of evidence suggests that breastfeeding provides incredible health benefits to both infants and mothers. (For the FDA statement on this, click here.) It not only provides babies with antibodies that help them avoid illness, it also may protect mothers against breast and ovarian cancers later in life. There is evidence that breastfeeding provides psychological benefits to infants and that breastfed infants develop higher IQs. There’s even evidence that breast-fed babies are less prone to obesity later in life – and obesity is something that Bill Maher is clearly against. Breastfeeding saves on healthcare costs, and it is clear that advocating in favor of breastfeeding is in the interest of public health. And yet the vast majority of mothers do not breastfeed for the full 12 months recommended by Health and Human Services. In fact, less than 30% of mothers are breastfeeding when their babies reach 6 months of age.
Given that it’s so good for their babies and themselves, why don’t more mothers breastfeed? One reason is that there is inadequate maternity leave for most women, making it hard for women who want or need to work outside the home to establish breastfeeding. Another reason is that many employed women don’t have enough privacy at work to pump milk. Then there’s the fact that formula is readily available, and hospitals and pediatricians give out free samples. But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of people like Bill Maher who are squeamish about the fact that humans are mammals. Coworkers who don’t want women leaving icky breast milk in the office refrigerator because it grosses them out. Those who can’t handle the idea that babies should also get to eat when the family is at Applebees, even if they are having something healthier than what’s on the menu. So Bill Maher says that breastfeeding mother’s are too lazy to plan ahead, presumably because they can arrange it so that their babies don’t need to eat while they’re out. Obviously he has never had to manage life within small windows of opportunity between feedings or he would know that timing a baby’s hunger is just not possible. Perhaps he would prefer that breastfeeding mothers never leave the house – another recipe for reducing breastfeeding rates. Sometimes people, especially those without children, seem to forget that mothers are people too – we need to have friends, social lives, and activities beyond the confinement of our living rooms.
Bill Maher obviously doesn’t understand the benefits of breastfeeding to public health, since he claims that breastfeeding is not worthy of activism. He says that it’s “petty and parochial.” Apparently he also doesn’t understand that supporting breastfeeding is not only good for public health, it’s also part of reproductive justice – along with the availability of contraception, the legality of abortion, the right to informed consent or refusal of medical procedures when giving birth – all rights that many women currently do not have. When he claims that women’s reproductive activities are yucky and should go underground, he is colluding with the people who want to control reproduction and sexuality – not normally the folks he counts among his friends (with the possible exception of Ann Coulter). He may be in favor of the kind of sex he wants to have with the kind of bodies he wants to have it with, but his attitudes toward women are stuck in the Dark Ages.
Of course, so are his attitudes about babies, which he says are not special because creating a baby is “something a dog could do.” First, Bill, dogs don’t make human babies. But all babies, including puppies, are adorable – they have to be so that we want to protect them. It’s a survival thing. Beyond that, we can all respect that Bill Maher doesn’t want to have children and perhaps we’re all better off for that. But Bill needs to respect the fact that other people’s children are the ones who will be paying into Social Security when he reaches retirement age. If anyone is going to make the scientific discoveries that help to resolve the problems that Bill cares about, like global warming, it will be other people’s children. Parents, and especially mothers, are providing a public good by taking care of their children’s health and development. So instead of criticizing them for making you queasy, maybe you should cheer them on.