Ethics of Breast Milk

The focus of bioethics is quite broad, encompassing issues as diverse as end-of-life care and human subject research. In the spring issue of the Ochsner Journal, the bioethics discussion takes what may appear at first glance to be a counterintuitive direction: into a consideration of human breast milk.

The overwhelming consensus is that breast milk is a good thing for newborns. The research certainly backs up this assertion. So what ethical dilemma could possibly be related to breast milk?

What if mom can’t provide it? What happens then?

In “The Ethics Surrounding the Use of Donor Milk,” Thibeau and Ginsberg tackle a number of questions related to donor milk banking, with particular focus on for-profit and nonprofit providers and the differences in milk quality. They also look at inequities in donor milk distribution caused by limited supply and what for some parents is a prohibitive cost. According to the authors, only 6 states in the United States provide Medicaid coverage for donor milk reimbursement, leaving vulnerable infants at risk.

The topic is a timely one, given the statistic widely reported in January 2018 that babies in the United States are 76 percent more likely to die before their first birthday than infants born in other wealthy countries. Breast milk availability certainly isn’t the only contributor to this statistic, but its importance in terms of health and infant viability cannot be disputed.