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Memorial Issue of Lactation Review Honouring Margaret Mead


Memorial issue of Lactation Review honouring Margaret Mead

Lactation Review, Vol. IV, No. 1 (1979), a memorial issue to Margaret Mead (1901 - 1978), the recently deceased, eminent anthropologist and former Co-Director of the Lactation Center, includes an interview with Dr. Mead on mothers and mothering, an analysis by Lee Edson of the breast/bottle controversy, and a review of Breastfeeding and food Policy in a Hungry World, an outgrowth of the International Conference on Human Lactation held in 1977. The 1977 interview with Dr. Mead offers both amusing details of her own maverick experiences in childbirth, breast-feeding, and mothering and her broader ideas on the basic process of starting a family.

The accompanying analysis by Lee Edson, "Babies in Poverty: The Real Victims of the Breast/Bottle Controversy," is comprehensive and well balanced. His evaluation leads to the point that the contest between anti-bottle factions and infant food formula companies has, paradoxically, obscured the original goal-to keep children alive and well nourished. No realistic end to the conflict is in sight; the victims are the helpless mothers and their babies. The situation is ironic because the multidisciplinary forces mobilized to correct the practices of multinational formula companies are entrenched in well-meaning humanitarianism and dedication. The companies, albeit initially defensive, have also been responsive, with selected conciliatory changes in marketing and packaging. However, the current positions of the two camps are virtually irreconcilable and unproductive.

Formula companies maintain their intrinsic entrepreneurial posture and view product availability and advertisements as components of the consumer's right to choose. Charges of the anti-formula advocates, that illiterate mothers are seduced into buying products beyond their hygienic and economic means, verge on the ideological. Demands for solutions, such as government intervention, may be inflexible and short-sighted and create an impasse in negotiations. Finally, careful examination of the critical points of the arguments
- that the primary cause of the abandonment of breast-feeding in the developing world is the heavy promotion of infant formula by companies,
- that bottle-feeding invariably leads to increased infant morbidity and mortality,
- that breast milk has at least four absolute advantages over alternatives,
- and that truly exclusive breast-feeding really exists and is desirable-indicates that they are highly contestable and badly in need of definitive research.

For these reasons, Edson points out that the continuing emotional and acerbic dispute over whether "breast is always best" or whether "formula companies kill babies" is a fruitless spinning of wheels. Efforts should be directed instead to devising mechanisms for critics and industry to work together toward creating pragmatic solutions for the social and nutritional dilemmas of the developing world. Potential contributions from industry are outlined. Activists must become more flexible and realistic. The guidance of a respected, objective, and well informed intermediary agency to begin the process is in order.

Heidi Van Arsdell

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