Thursday, 4 July 2013

Breast is best

Apparently - well, according to the South China Morning Post, as retailed in shocked tones to readers of Telegraph Online by Tim Stanley - there's a trend among China's increasingly prosperous and fashion-conscious middle classes to hire wetnurses.  Only not all the milk is intended for babes in arms.  Confirming their national reputation for both omnivoracity and medical gullibility, some at least of the Chinese are convinced that human breast milk is good for them, and wetnursing agencies (which apparently exist over there) are expanding their business to cater to the new demand. 

The service is allegedly "popular among adults with high incomes and high-pressure jobs and who suffered from poor health," and the women "rarely raise objections as long as the price is right."  This despite the fact that you have to suspect that in some cases there's a sexual thing going on, given that some clients elect to receive their dose of the white stuff direct from source, as it were.  (A lawyer quoted in the SCMP, making a suitably fine legal distinction, noted that "there is an essential difference between sucking on a breast and drinking from a pump, as the former largely exceeds the necessity of diet."  Indeed.)

Stanley is scandalised by all this:

On the one hand, it’s revolting. Everything about this scenario should appal the reader, from the very idea of an adult suckling from another adult to the possibility that someone should be so desperate for money that they have to sell their services in this manner. It’s every bit as wrong as prostitution.

But on the other hand, the story is good evidence of how China has become an unrestrained capitalist free-for-all:

When you take the profit motive and strip it of old-fashioned concepts like shame or natural law, it becomes rational in the minds of nihilists to treat the human body as yet another product to packaged, priced up and put on the market. If a society is prepared to employ people for a dollar a day, work them near to death and provide little in the way of health and safety regulation, why not exploit their human reproductive systems, too? If China's oligarchs treat their people like cattle, that’s exactly where capitalism without morality ends. Don’t be surprised if rich Chinese businessmen start wearing clothes taken from the hair of the poor, or jewelry made from fingers. Perhaps an amputated foot as a doorstop?

Actually, this is just the same point put differently.  Tim Stanley sounds a bit like the fashionable Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, lamenting the contaminating effect of money on morality and human relationships - and seemingly unable to see in capitalism anything other than exploitation, a strange position for a conservative to occupy.  "Why not exploit the human reproductive system too?"  Well, commercial surrogacy is now an accepted practice in many parts of the world and has brought joy to countless childless couples.  Donating a uterus for nine months is a much bigger ask than a cupful of milk. 

Stanley's argument is a good case study in the close relationship (often commented on by psychologists and anthropologists alike) between physical disgust and moral disapproval.  He finds the concept "revolting" and "ultra-creepy"; from there it's no distance at all to finding it wrong.  It's telling that he assumes only desperation for money could drive someone to sell her own breast-milk.  Yet it's a renewable resource (just as hair is; and many people in the third world sell their hair), and the women providing it appear to be reasonably well-paid (up to 20,000 yuan a month, as compared with an average monthly wage in China of around 500).  The figures would suggest that women with breast milk to spare are highly sought-after, and indeed highly valued.  Wetnursing was once a respectable occupation in Europe, too, although as far as I'm aware their services were only provided to babies. [or perhaps not. Tim Stanley has now pointed me to this very interesting account of adult breastfeeding during the renaissance.]

What's the problem?  ConsentingC adults providing a service to other adults, harming no-one and indeed providing them with a nutritious and possibly (I've never tried it, at least not since long before my gastronomic memory kicked in) delicious, 100% natural foodstuff.   It's surely not on the same morally questionable level as, say, an unregulated trade in human organs.  Yes, it's unconventional.  But you may reasonably wonder why it's normal for people to consume milk intended by nature to feed baby cows, yet enjoying milk intended for human beings should be considered disgusting and wrong. 

Is it merely the strong hold of conventional thinking?  It wasn't so many years ago, after all, that it was perfectly acceptable to make the same disgusted noises about consensual gay sex (and there are still plenty of people who think that way, even if it has become socially unacceptable to enunciate their revulsion).  Or maybe there's something deeper going on - perhaps the intimacy of the mother-child bond in lactation sets up a taboo (adult milk-drinking as a boundary violation); or perhaps Freud would have had something to say about the milk-drinkers exhibiting an Oedipal craving to return to the maternal breast (in which case, the practice becomes taboo precisely because it is powerfully attractive).  Alternatively, the thought of consuming breast-milk may stir up the same kind of emotions that the recent Western fad of placenta-eating does in some people: are objectors subliminally reminded of cannibalism?  Maybe.  But I'll go with the social convention hypothesis for now.  I suspect Tim Stanley is just incapable of getting his head round the idea of something so (in our terms) unusual.  Anglo-Saxon people tend to be fairly weird about breasts generally, after all.

At the start of this post I noted Chinese medical gullibility.  I was thinking of tiger-bones and the like, but when it comes to human breast-milk perhaps I'm being unfair.  Nutritionists are, after all, very sure that it's good, even necessary, for babies, to the extent that women unwilling or unable to breastfeed are subject to near-bullying from dispensers of official health advice.  Breast-milk contains chemicals important to the development of human infants and to the development of their immune system.  It also helps protect nursing mothers from some cancer.  So it's not wholly implausible that this miraculous substance would also provide health benefits to adults - more, indeed, than are provided by cow's milk, which as I noted earlier is intended for baby cows. 

Leaving aside the yuck factor, it is of course impractical (and morally unacceptable) to milk women in the same way that cows are milked commercially: human milk as such will only ever be a niche product.  But that doesn't make it disgusting, or any less potentially beneficial.  I can imagine, in the not too distant future, genetically engineering cows or goats to produce milk with the same nutritional composition as human milk.  I can also imagine the Tim Stanleys of the world having a problem with the idea.  But I'm not sure that it would be wrong.

Meanwhile, should you have access to a ready supply of human milk, you might like to check-out these delicious-sounding recipes.  Vanilla Breast Milk Cupcakes with Strawberry Frosting.  Yum.