Today, wet nurses; tomorrow, a global breast milk trade?

JAY DIRECTO/AFP In January, FP featured a piece about the International Breast Milk Project, in which American women who produce excess breast milk donate it for shipment to newborn orphans in Africa. But what if the milk flow were to go in the opposite direction? What if women in developing countries were paid to ship ...

602280_070426_breastfeeding_05.jpg
602280_070426_breastfeeding_05.jpg

JAY DIRECTO/AFP

JAY DIRECTO/AFP

In January, FP featured a piece about the International Breast Milk Project, in which American women who produce excess breast milk donate it for shipment to newborn orphans in Africa.

But what if the milk flow were to go in the opposite direction? What if women in developing countries were paid to ship their breast milk to moms in the West?

A recent article in Time magazine discusses wet nurses—women who are paid to breast-feed other women’s babies. Apparently, the old custom is reemerging a bit in the United States. More American women work outside the home at jobs that don’t make it easy to breast-feed. More women have breast implants. Some women adopt children.

As a result, a few American women have hired wet nurses through CertifiedHouseholdStaffing.com. Others buy bottled breast milk from nonprofit “milk banks.” One company, Prolacta Bioscience, is the country’s first for-profit processor of donated breast milk. (It sells to neonatal units, not individuals.)

But if the for-profit breast-milk industry grows (in 2005, demand for breast milk from one nonprofit association of milk banks grew 28 percent), where will companies get all their milk once altruistic donors run dry? If they follow the model of other American businesses, they might turn to the developing world for their raw material—in this case, breast milk.

It would be expensive to ship frozen milk across continents and oceans, but given that Prolacta last year was marketing milk at $35 per ounce, it’s possible that paying low amounts to women in the developing world would make importing a viable business strategy.

Clearly, though, there are a lot of sensitive questions to be debated. Is this exploitation of poor women, or is it giving them income for a body fluid they supposedly can’t use anyway? In India, women are already renting out their wombs to Western women. The next logical step, it seems, would be breast rental.

Preeti Aroon was copy chief at Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2016 and was an FP assistant editor from 2007 to 2009. Twitter: @pjaroonFP

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