This week a story has hit media outlets about an Indian company looking to sell breastmilk in Australia. Every now and then the topic of commercialising the sale of human milk comes up, and it makes me shudder. I am a big fan of milk sharing, but I feel commercialising it is wrong.
The main thing that makes a commercialised milk bank sound attractive is the idea that we could earn money from our milk. Instead of families donating their excess milk for goodwill, there would be remuneration involved. As a breastfeeding mum who has the ability to express far in excess of what we need, this is appealing to me. If you have not returned to work due to family commitments, the idea that you could earn some money from doing something that you already do for free is obviously tempting – plenty would agree.
As it currently stands in Australia, if you donate breastmilk, you do it for nothing. Well, not really nothing, I mean you get to know you did something really really good for someone else, and you might get some good karma in return. But no one donates their milk for a profit, and that fact has always made me feel comfortable about the type of people who are doing it, and therefore the level of risk involved with the whether the donor uses illegal drugs or has any diseases that can be transferred through their milk. But if people stand to profit from the sale of breastmilk, the risks become unacceptably high.
Imagine families that are so desperate for money, that they deprive their own children of the milk that was intended for them, opting to give them a less valuable (and less healthy) option. What if people began selling their milk to fund their drug habits? If money is involved, where’s our guarantee of clean, safe milk? Will people lie about their health or disease status because they need the money? Will people in key positions within businesses become open to bribery? Or what happens if the milk bank can’t source enough milk? Will they dilute the product they have with water or other substances to stretch it out, so they can make more money from less milk?
And then if we are paying people for their milk, that means the cost of the pasteurised product increases. Do we want to get into a situation where only the very wealthy can afford to pay for human milk? Will the milk go to whoever needs it the most, or will it go to the person who can pay the most for it? I donate my milk to to families – I wouldn’t donate it to body builders. If I sell my milk to a business, they will sell it to whoever has the most money, not to whoever I want it to go to.
The situation in the news this week was about a company selling milk from India. India has previously been in the news for their “baby farms”, where women are paid for their unwanted babies. Some baby farms hold women against their will, forcing them to carry babies and then taking them away to be sold to wealthy foreigners. Will someone start running illegal “milking farms”, where women are held against their will and forced to lactate, so that criminals can sell the product for a profit?
In Australia, we have a few not-for-profit milk banks. “Not-for-profit” doesn’t mean that everyone works for free, and it definitely doesn’t mean they operate at a loss, or are “pro-defecit”. It doesn’t mean that one person has to fund the project from their own pocket. Generally they focus their resources on finding donated milk from families with a child up to 6 months old, and most of the milk is sold to hospitals for premature or sick babies. The milk is sold at a rate that is designed to cover the milk bank’s operating costs (eg pasteurisation, storage, staff wages and then all the usual overheads, like rent, utilities, etc). It means that the income generated by the milk bank is invested back into the business to maintain and possibly improve their services.
I wish that our current milk banks could take donated breastmilk from families with kids older than 6 months of age. I wish that they could provide milk to the wider community, and not just babies who are premature or sick. I wish that those who choose to give away their milk could be rewarded in a meaningful way (although the love and goodwill IS valuable).
And I hope that one day our governments will realise the value of breastmilk, and see that investing in milk sharing is an investment into the health of our nation and will therefore decrease health costs in the future.
But I will never support commercialised milk banking.