Why am I (still) debating Amy Tuteur?

As you wait for my reply to her question, to be posted tonight at midnight, here’s an answer to a question I am being asked. Why would anyone persist through so many unilateral changes ot procedure and topic as Amy has tried to create, though so much rudeness and scorn from her?

Well may you ask. I certainly didn’t intend to waste my time on her.  I bought Amy Tuteur’s book in 2017, and decided it was not worth reviewing.  I have ignored her and her noxious page for years. But she challenged me, and clearly though she could win by doing so.. Letting bullies win is never a good idea.

Breastfeeding advocates have refused to debate Amy Tuteur because of her own rudeness and the abusive conduct of her supporters, which she permits – and there is a perception that she encourages – on her Facebook page. Dozens have contacted me and said ignore her, don’t give her oxygen. My participation in this debate is not a reflection on the very sensible choices others have made. Nobody wants to have to waste their time managing the negative impact of mob abuse via social media, on employers, funding bodies, etc. But I am in the fortunate position of having no employer, no funding bodies, and the ability to set aside a few days for a debate at my own discretion.

So what is the point I am seeking to make by debating her now? Not just that internet bullies need to be resisted, though that is surely part of it. I hope to convince some of the genuine sceptics (i.e., those open to reason and capable of civil disagreement; the term sceptic does not include denialists like Tuteur) that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows important short- and long-term benefits of breastfeeding for both babies and mothers in every country, and resulting indirect benefits to families and society. The more accurately the research defines feeding method, the clearer the evidence. (Accuracy means rigorously defining “exclusively breastfed” to mean having been breastfed from birth to the point of study entry, as opposed to baby “not having much beside breastmilk recently, fed or pumped, but we didn’t investigate neonatal formula or fortifier exposure”. And timing, dose, and duration of exposure all matter.) My considered opinion is that differences in outcome between breastfed and formula fed infants mean that there is a professional and moral obligation to ensure parents have a proper understanding of the risks to themselves and their offspring – preferably before the baby arrives!

Does this mean mothers who don’t breastfeed/can’t breastfeed/rapidly give up breastfeeding are blameworthy in any way? Of course not. I have never believed that and never argued it. I have supported such women, and while I regret that the choice of formula was made (almost usually under duress of various kinds), I have always respected the mothers’ right to make it, and never doubted that they love their babies. Check out my basic principles below (posted earlier too).

But since even my regret may be misrepresented, let me be clear. My regret is empathy, not condemnation. I would regret a child having to use crutches because she broke her leg falling out of a tree; that is hardly condemnation of her or the parents! Similarly, I regret that some parents must go out to work, even when they would rather earn a living from home in their baby’s early years. That regret is not condemnation of parents doing what they see as their best for the family in an unsupportive world. ( And yes, as many advantaged white women are quick to respond, not all parents would prefer to stay at home and lose interesting paid work, especially when caring is so undervalued. But I suspect that there are more people who would like to but can’t, than there are people who could, but choose not to. Being a fulltime at-home mother is nowadays a choice only advantaged women can make.)

Parents make choices about infant feeding in the context of their own lives. I support parents to make the best choice they can. I have advised a mother to go direct to the chemist for a brand of specialized formula when it became clear that her supply was so low, and her support system so poor, that reviving breastfeeding was unlikely to succeed, and her obviously allergic baby needed food immediately. Just as I have advised other mothers about how to revive their failing supply, and supported them for days or weeks for no fee, after discussion revealed it was possible, and what they wanted. But I never lie to parents and tell them that their decisions don’t matter because the water supply is infallibly safe and  “formula is so close to breastmilk nowadays”. (Marketers have said that for a century, about formulas that have damaged babies.)

Initiation rates say that women want to breastfeed, and think it the better choice. The research says that mothers who do not breastfeed have been let down by a society that does not enable women to make and successfully implement their feeding choices, despite the important consequences of that choice – for everyone who is ever a baby, and everyone who is ever a mother, and their descendants. Read Professor Amy Brown’s book Breastfeeding Uncovered, or The Big LetDown by Kimberley Seals Allers, to see the barriers women face.

I believe that all mothers should be able to feed their babies without any backlash – no judgment for formula-feeding mothers, and no judgment, no awkward stares or sleazy harassment, no imputation of “showing off” or “superiority”, no grumbling from employers or anyone else about the inconvenience of lactation arrangements, or any of the other social costs borne by breastfeeding women.

And this is the view of every so-called “lactivist” I know. I would be genuinely surprised to read any official statement from any “lactivist” individual or body that substantially differed from this, placing blame on individual parents, rather than calling for societal change to give those parents genuine freedom to choose.

There will always be ll-considered and insensitive comments by judgmental individuals on all sides of any debate. But those are hardly reflective, evidence-based official positions. And after all, social media is designed to trick us into expressing momentary thoughts, often before proper reflection on what we think, and who might read it, and even before properly taking in what we are responding to. And we all do make judgments, even if we try to be careful about expressing them.

Which is why I refuse to conduct this serious conversation on Facebook pages, and why I simply ignore goading and rude posts being made by Amy Tuteur and others. (They say a lot about those who post, they say nothing about me.)The process set up is impartial and allows for accountability: what we say will be on the record, no tampering possible without evidence of it happening.

Honestly, I believe the best place for any complex debate is through books (and related in-depth reviews and correspondence). Considered writing is the superior format for extended, complex discussions and logical arguments based on extensive reference to empirical scientific research. That’s why I wrote my book, why I expect AT to have read my book, and why I have re-read hers, since surely it represents the case she wants now to set out.

I invite anyone genuinely interested in infant feeding to read both our books and compare the quality of the logical arguments, the judgmentalism, and the research bases of both. There is a bonus: if you read the whole of Milk Matters, or even just the second e-book, you are quite likely to learn that you and your children have been affected by the feeding choices of past generations. And with that awareness of the intergenerational impacts of infant feeding, any sense of personal guilt vanishes. Or so mothers tell me.

If you have read my book, you’ll know that I am always interested in, and actively invite, reasoned critiques of my ideas and writing. But I’m not interested in responding to emotive rants or abuse from people enraged by straw-men and memes. The world needs a lot less of that. Please don’t be part of the hate team. By dividing mothers into warring camps, we ensure that no one gets the help they need.

I posted my basic principles on June 11 and asked Amy to endorse them as common ground. They are:

  • The welfare of children and of women is the primary basis for arguing the merits of one method of infant feeding over another. The most important consideration in parental decision-making, or health professional recommendation of feeding method to clients, is the wellbeing of the mother and child. Indirect and social effects are important, and can be relevant, but are secondary (and are not the subject of this debate). Partners’ preferences are also secondary to maternal autonomy.
  • Health professionals have a duty of care to their clients, and a legal responsibility to inform them of potential consequences of their infant feeding options, and to provide information about relevant support groups.
  • Decisions with health implications must be made by those whose bodies are directly affected, or in the case of infants, be made by their parents or guardians. Before making decisions, parents should be fully and non-judgmentally informed about the potential effects of the available options.
  • Mothers especially should be fully and non-judgmentally informed of the potential risks to their own physical health in infant feeding practice
  • Many factors influence infant feeding decisions, and all parents should be supported to feed infants as safely as possible in their unique circumstances, and helped to manage any negative consequences.
  • Since some of the decisions about, and negative consequences of, any feeding method are the result of societal structures that limit parental choice, all infant feeding advocates should seek to change those systems;
  • Those who spend their lives supporting parents and children are entitled to make a living doing so, but at both individual and systemic levels, their interests are always secondary to the interests of those they serve.

Amy Tuteur has been reading, commenting on, and misrepresenting my posts on one of her websites. But she couldn’t even agree with the above statements. Amy Tuteur apparently does not agree with these most basic principles. But then, we mothers know all too well that not all obstetricians abide by them.

Today June 18th, I discover from others that she has declared that I have forfeited the debate by continuing to create an impartial process that put her replies on permanent record. At midnight, as I have said, I will post my reply to the question she set  – before changing her mind yet again and demanding another process unilaterally, of both of us posting different cases. (Although she intruded into my Facebook pages even when they were locked against her SOB website, she never  let me know about anything directly, as the debate drew closer.) I will wait 24 hours before declaring that she has forfeited by not answering the post. I won’t take the risk of not posting my reply to her question, as she would doubtless then say that I had not done as I promised, not replied to her question!

Of course, if she wimps out of answering my reply to HER question, she is coward as well as a bully. Ignoring her is the only way to go. However, if others have suffered from her bullying, please get in touch privately. There may be things that should be done to protect other people. None of this has been pleasant. Though a lot of it has been laughable.

However, I am delighted that her aggressive and rude behaviour prompted me to bring forward the online free release of a substantial part of Milk Matters, now with thousands of downloads happening. If you want a copy, here’s where to go. It’s not an easy read in places, but you WILL find it interesting. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333717900_Milk_Matters_Book_One_by_Maureen_Minchin

Maureen Minchin