February 01, 2017
by Valeria Vavassori-Chen, MS Bioethics, Clarkson University & Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (2011)
Human Breast Milk Sharing—Limited Regulation with Social Justice Implications
After the birth of both of my children I found myself producing more milk than my kids could consume. I decided to donate my extra supply to any family whose child might need it. While researching the best venue to do so, I discovered a huge demand for free human breast milk and a completely unregulated market.
The benefits of breast milk over formula have been well documented in the medical literature. Human breast milk is naturally designed to meet all the baby’s nutritional needs, and it provides early innate immunity, which, when compared to formula-fed babies, reduces infant morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases. The World Health Organization urges that caregivers should “exclusively breastfeed infants for the child’s first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health.” Additionally, some newborns with medical issues (especially premature babies whose digestive system is extremely immature) do not tolerate formula at all. Finally, there are many health risks associated with the use of formula.
Knowing the great benefits of human breast milk, many parents who are unable to produce enough breast milk have good reason to seek out private breast milk donors. There are, however, risks associated with human breast milk sharing. These include possible bacterial contamination and even transmission of HIV. Proper handling and storing are essential to reduce bacterial contamination, and a process called flash-heating can be used to inactivate the free-floating HIV virus.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.