On ‘Chest-feeding’

Chestfeeding and Nature

Apparently, then, some women who do not consider themselves women prefer to say that they ‘chest-feed’ rather than ‘breast-feed’, and so some progressives are now encouraging us all to replace the latter verb with the former in our discourse. In other words, we are all being encouraged to adjust our language in order implicitly to deny the biological distinctness of women.

I feel this to be a vicious assault on all my female relatives, and indeed on all mothers generally. I feel that we men need to defend our womenfolk. As I recently heard a wise Dominican priest say, all men—priests, married men, religious, unmarried—all men are called, in a certain sense, to be fighters, especially fighters for truth. Some people need to wage that fight at the high levels of philosophy, but all of us need to call out perversity clearly, just as did the Church Fathers. The next person I hear using the term ‘chest-feeding’ I will soundly berate for his disgusting, offensive speech. As the Italians’ recent actions show us, decency and freedom from mental tyranny still have the numbers in most parts of the West. Progressive liberalism is always brittle—so go out and smash it!

But this is more than a rant. Unusually for a chap, I recently became interested in the ethics of breastfeeding, because it is closely related to the ethics of artificial contraception. I therefore know a little about the enormous physical and mental benefits of mothers’ breastfeeding. The ‘chest-feeding’ insult affords a good opportunity to revisit this uniquely female contribution to the life of mankind. For breastfeeding provides very definite societal goods, and is by no means clear that the ‘chest-feeding’ of hormone-pumped ‘trans-men’ can replace it. Nature, thank God, isn’t woke, and we ignore her at our peril.

First, however, I do want to get abstract for a moment. Otherwise, all my cited facts of nature will convince no-one but those who already reason in a conservative, nature-respecting way.

We can start by considering why this is so. Modern Western liberals reject the authority of human nature over them. To understand this, we have to cast our minds back to the intellectual climate just after the Second World War. At the turn of the 20th century, many intellectuals and politicians had been modernists: they had believed that the growth of human knowledge and of the scientific disciplines would, in time, solve most or all of the problems of human social organization and political life. Such men were the heirs of an Enlightenment liberalism that had been sceptical about the the capacity of human reason to learn deep truths about reality; and so they had pinned their hopes on natural science, which had the more philosophically modest ambition of taming and manipulating natural things. But post-war liberals, shocked by the horrors of the First and Second World Wars, were forced to accept that something had gone wrong: the rapid advancement of science and scientists had not produced peace, prosperity and social harmony.

These post-war liberals concluded that the tyrannies of fascism and communism had arisen because Europeans agreed too much about fundamentals. To prevent further lapses into tyranny, Western societies were to be remade as ‘open’ societies, in which1 there would be no shared, public, ‘thick’ metaphysics to describe the nature of reality, our being, and our human purpose. Any such shared metaphysics, thought the Post-war Liberal Fathers, made a society too sure of itself, and too ready to oppress dissenters. On the liberal plan, each society would no longer have one common, predominant world-view, but would instead have a kind of anti-metaphysics: everyone would be taught to believe that deep convictions about reality were dangerous, because they made one judge others. This is why the programmatic work of post-war Anglophone liberalism, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (notice the demonization of non-liberals from the start), began with an extended attack on Western metaphysics from Plato onwards, and argued that scientists, not philosophers, should lead our political discourse.2 (From this arose the idea that ‘evidence-based’ policy was always better than conviction-based policy). The post-war elite liberal consensus can be summed up like this: if you encourage people to disagree about fundamentals, then society will remain free.

The more a metaphysics was likely to motivate collective action, the more post-war liberals disliked it. So, far example, it did not greatly bother them that most people could agree about the objective reality of things like trees and apples. But they hated all metaphysical claims that might imply ethical demands. In the West, the most important such claims were the traditional Christian ones. Developing the best of ancient thought—which had been held back by a lip-service to a civic polytheism—the Faith had taught that reason proved that a single, immutable, omnipotent God, the necessary Being, had created all things ex nihilo. The revelation to the Jews, and finally the revelation to all people through the incarnation of the Son, completed the picture, by teaching us of God’s benevolence (amongst other things).

This world-view had very definite ethical implications. A loving omnipotent God had created human nature. If then philosophers observed certain law-like patterns within that human nature, we would be mad not to respect them. So, for example, if gluttony tended to make one sickly and miserable, and incapable of drawing healthy natural pleasure from food; or if promiscuity tended to make one depressed and similarly incapable of drawing healthy natural pleasure from marriage: then these were things to avoid. They made us unhealthy and sad because they were contrary to God’s plan for us, a plan which permeated the whole of the being that he had given us. For God’s natural law was written in our heart: in our conscience and in our bodies.

For Jews and Christians of course, ethics were to be learned from revelation as well as from human nature: there were the Ten Commandments, and Christ himself had told us to love God with our whole heart, and to love our neighbour as ourself. But the Fathers and Doctors of the Church—nay, the apostles themselves—soon worked out that revealed ethics was only a confirmation of the ethical laws already written on the human heart; laws that pointed to our need of grace—of shared divine life in Christ—if we were ever to fulfil them. As Pope Benedict once said at Cambridge, the Faith does not add to the great ethical intuitions of humanity: but it holds them together from a new centre.

This metaphysics implies that our ordinary natural feelings mean something. So for example, if some action generally makes people feel guilty, then—according to the Faith—this suggests that it really is bad: ethically bad and (which is inseparable) bad for us. Hence, according the to the Faith, the answer to guilt is not to go to a psychiatrist, who will invariably tell one not to feel guilty; the answer is to stop doing the thing that is making one feel guilty. Things have meaning, and at least something of this meaning is accessible to human reason.

This metaphysics survived the Reformation, and still lay behind much of Western life at the time of the Second World War. True, the importance of the natural law was defended, at the philosophical level, largely by non-Protestant Christians. This was probably because of non-Protestants’ view of justification (the process of becoming righteous, and therefore saved). Non-Protestants regard justification as an intrinsic change: a real change in the justified person, who really grows in and towards Christ. Hence they see the natural law as relevant to salvation: for how can one become inwardly righteous if one is ignoring the natural laws written by God into one’s nature? Protestants, in contrast, regard justification as a legal declaration—an imputation of Christ’s righteousness to one; a sprinkling of pure snow upon mud. To be justified, they say, is to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ; to be able to stand before God and demand entry to heaven. The ‘clothing’ does not get inside one; it is something worn, not something in-dwelling. Furthermore, for Protestants everything we do is sin—even our tendency to sin is itself, sin. For both these doctrinal reasons, Protestants thinkers had little interest in distinguishing sinful acts from non-sinful ones, or in thinking about natural morality. When Luther said that it would be licit to commit adultery if one could commit it without faithlessness, he meant that only the biblical injunction against adultery made adultery incompatible with righteousness—and then only because one could not have faith if one ignored the bible. Nature was irrelevant. (Taken seriously—as, for example, by evangelicals—this view disastrously constricts human reason and aesthetic perception, which were made to lead us to God through reflection on all his works).

Nevertheless, ordinary Protestants’ faith remained far more traditional than their leaders’. In this country, older Anglican laity and lower clergy even today still value ‘Christian morals’, conceived of as emphasizing the value of self-control, self-denial, and purity; even though most Anglican higher clergy have always regarded a focus on ‘Christian morals’ as somewhat parochial. In summary: the pre-war West still largely believed that human nature meant something; that it had knowable, objective moral implications.

Now, as I said, this is just the kind of metaphysics that post-war liberals hated: it could motivate strong moral consensus amongst peoples, and strong moral consensus, they said, inevitably tended towards tyranny. Hence slowly, subtly, the intellectual leaders of the post-war world encouraged people to form their own views of reality, untied to tradition, or to the authority of elders or of the past, in order that societies should have no shared account of the meaning of things: no shared metaphysics that might motivate collective action. In 1945, European education, European morals, even European science, all presupposed a shared Christian metaphysics—nay, a basically scholastic one, because Protestantism had had no serious philosophy to add. All this, said the liberals, had to change. Deconstruction and rebellion were good; cautious, constructive criticisms of society, inhabiting, respecting, sustaining and adapting shared traditions, were bad.

Here it is important to understand that post-war liberalism was not, in essence, a doctrine about what existed. It was not a doctrine about whether there were any objective moral facts ‘out there’ in the world; nor was it a doctrine about what degree of moral and metaphysical agreement was possible. Rather, it was a doctrine about how much moral and metaphysical agreement was desirable within Western-society. It was a fundamentally pragmatic, anti-metaphysical position: there may or may not be such a thing as truth, it said, but agreement about truth was dangerous. Its basis was, in fact, the very basis of fascism: ‘let us not worry about fundamentals; let us do what works’.

Of course, one’s view of the desirability of fundamental agreement tends to be linked to one’s view of the possibility of such a thing. One’s view of the possibility of moral agreement consists in two views: one’s view of the possibility of moral knowledge, and one’s view of whether there are any objective moral truths out there to know in the first place. On the first point, most post-war liberals were fairly or very sceptical. On the second point, few if any post-war liberals were moral absolutists: people who believed that metaphysical and moral truth were the same everywhere and at all times. Some were moral relativists: they believed that there were moral truths somehow ‘out there’ in the world, but that they varied according to circumstances. Others still were existentialists: they believed that each person defined his own moral truths.

It is important to understand this, because it is important to understand how the post-war liberal system shaped ordinary people’s implicit metaphysics. As I say, the key idea of post-war liberalism was that philosophical agreement was dangerous to society. Post-war liberals therefore encouraged people to come to their own fundamental world-views independently, by problematising and stigmatising the Western tradition. To this end they appropriated the concept of ‘freedom’: to be free, they taught, was to be free of one’s intellectual inheritance: to have one’s own private view of ‘what it all meant’.

Now, if people are taught to believe that they must come to their own, independent views about fundamental truths, then they tend to develop a quite specific view of what truth itself is. To see this, consider the following analogy. Suppose that there were a large sphere in, say, Trafalgar square. Suppose, furthermore, that everyone who looked at this sphere perceived it as having a colour; but a colour unlike any other; a colour that they could not name. Would such people tend to believe that the sphere had an objective, unchanging colour? Would they, perhaps, tend to believe that the sphere had real colours, but ones that were different for everyone? Or would they tend to believe that the colour that each person perceived was something that his own mind had projected on to the sphere? Most likely, in time, people would tend to the last of those views.

But post-war liberals have sought—with some success—to make reality itself seem to us to resemble the sphere. In our imaginary example, people could not talk about the sphere because they had no shared points of reference: they could not agree that it was like some other object with an agreed colour. Now, post-war liberals have tried to undermine all our shared points of reference about reality itself, and its meaning. They have taught us each to have our own private view of all essentials; indeed, they have convinced us that creativity and authenticity—being true to oneself—consist in one’s standing apart from that which has been handed down to one.

Here colour remains a useful analogy. In practice, we humans have no difficulty in talking to each other about the colour of things. This is because, as social animals, we have a natural instinct for seeking agreement. If a child misnames a colour, his mother or father corrects him, and the child accepts the correction, because he intuitively knows that he ought to use colour words in the same way as everyone else. We can see how strong this instinct is by adults’ reaction to those rare cases in which they disagree about something’s colour. Readers may remember the online headlines, a few years ago, about the image of a dress that had ‘broken the internet’, because people could not agree about its colour. When we disagree about colour—indeed when we disagree about the meaning of most basic words—our instinctive reaction is to engage in debate. No-one disputes that we ought to agree what the colour of any one item is, nor that we can agree if we reason together correctly; nor indeed does anyone deny that the item has an objective colour in the first place.

But post-war liberalism has tried to destroy this instinct of ours for seeking truth by dialogue. For when we encounter some moral disagreement, postwar liberalism has taught us to shrug our shoulders. In the postwar liberal mentality, the mere fact that someone has come to some moral or metaphysical view is justification for his continuing to hold it: it is his view, and he has a right to it. (Here, as so often, liberalism uses an intellectual slight of hand: except when one is converting someone to liberalism, any attempt to change someone’s view is labelled an attack on his right to hold it. Yet one can easily believe in a right to free speech and yet also believe that there are objective truths attainable in debate).

In this climate, we post-war Westerns have ever more tended to see moral and metaphysical truth like we would see the colour of the baffling ball in Trafalgar square: as something that the individual projects onto the world for himself. My view is now my truth, and no-one may take it away from me—not even by rational argument. We still talk of finding meaning, but now we find private meaning for ourselves.

See how this world-view deals with human nature. One no longer forms one’s own view of human nature, but one decides what one’s own, private nature is. There is no longer human nature as such—something ‘out there’, and worthy of respect. Instead, there is my nature. Many people formed by modern liberalism still think that there are real external things—human arms and legs and brains with a certain structure, for example. But they refuse to believe that these things convey any meaning that could impose itself upon me. Meaning is my affair.

Unfortunately, the concept of ‘private meaning’ is trivial nonsense that would have earned any mediaeval undergraduate a thrashing for his bad logic. When we talk of the ‘meaning’ of life, we are using a metaphor drawn from language itself: only words have literal ‘meaning’. But a word has meaning only when we can and do use it to converse with each other; and we can and do use a word to converse with each other only when we share some agreement about what it refers to. Meaning is necessarily communal and consensual. (Wittgenstein demonstrates this in his famous ‘private language argument’).

This demonstrates the absurdity of the post-war search for my truth, found wholly within myself. ‘Private meaning’ is perspicuously self-contradictory; a ‘big lie’ so meaningless that few see its meaninglessness. Today, the language of transgenderism shows how futile is the search for this ever-elusive self-defined ‘meaning’. If I say that I am ‘genderqueer’ not ‘genderfluid’, or if I say that I am ‘demisexual’ instead, this does not really mean anything at all. Such meaninglessness arises from people’s attempts to find meaning within themselves, unconditioned and uninfluenced by the outside world. Just as in the parable of the Tower of Babel, when humans vie with the Creator, trying to write their own story and to transcend their creaturely limitations, then they cease to be able to talk about the real world that the creator has created—let alone about the world that they are trying to create.

Contrast post-war Western liberalism with the Western tradition. In the Western tradition, the meaning of life is like the colour of an object: it is something about which we can and should agree, by entering into rational dialogue with our elders and our contemporaries. Life is said to have ‘meaning’ because there are objective, fundamental truths accessible to human reason. Moreover, the Western tradition insists that these truths are absolute—they are the same everywhere. The best ancients had believed in absolute moral truths, and Christian thinkers never forget the scriptural assertion that Christ—the truth incarnate—‘is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow’.

One can take this idea too far of course: one can become intolerant and sectarian. When it had become clear that Protestantism would last for a few centuries at least, and when that faith had become an inherited tradition rather than a conscious revolt, Westerners had to learn to accept that people of good will now differed from each other on fairly fundamental points, with no immediate reconciliation in sight. Religious tolerance was accepted as a demand of Christian charity under modern conditions. Some, of course, drew stronger conclusions than the need for tolerance: the wars of religion were the seedbed of intellectuals’ scepticism and relativism. Nevertheless, even until the end of the Second World War, most ordinary pre-war Westerners retained a basic conviction that there were objective moral truths accessible to reason, and (quite reasonably) reconciled this with support for religious tolerance. Hence they still accepted facts about human nature as morally relevant (indeed morally revelatory).

Well: I still do so. I belong to that tradition. I now want briefly to expound the natural benefits of breastfeeding.

Breastfed babies are physically healthier: on average they have fewer instances of ear infections, colds and throat infections, gastrointestinal tract infections, coeliac disease, clinical asthma, eczema, atopic dermatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes (both types), childhood leukaemia and lymphomas, pneumonia, sudden infant death syndrome3, diarrhoea4, urinary-tract infections5, bacterial meningitis6, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis7, and tooth decay8, and they have better average cardiovascular health9 and lower average blood pressure10. They score higher on cognitive and IQ tests in school11 (amongst premature babies, breastfeeding gives an average IQ advantage of 8.3%12), leading to a detectable academic advantage up to twelfth grade13, and higher adult intelligence14; they score higher on visual acuity tests15, have better responses to vaccinations16, and a lower incidence of ‘paediatric overweight’.17 Breast-fed infants born pre-term have lower rates of long-term growth failure and neurodevelopmental disabilities, of necrotizing enterocolitis, and of hospital readmissions in the year after discharge from their ICU18. Many of these effects are substantially greater in children who have been exclusively breast-fed for at least six months than in those who have not, and many seem to be greater the longer and more often children are breastfed even past that point. Breast-milk itself has remarkable properties: if a mother is exposed to pathogens such as cholera bacteria or influenza, her milk will contain specific antibodies against those diseases within hours.19

Second: mothers who have breastfed a child are physically healthier, too: they are at lower risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidaemia, cardiovascular disease20, thyroid cancer21, endometrial cancer22, post-partum depression23, post-partum relapses into multiple sclerosis24, and (probably) post-menopausal hip fractures.25 Thirdly, it is strongly suspected that the close bond that such breastfeeding requires is extremely important for the emotional development of the child, that it reduces the risk of juvenile delinquency and criminal insanity, and that it is good for the mother’s mental health too.26 For such reasons, the World Health organization and UNICEF recommend ‘exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life; and introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.’27 For similar reasons, Pope John Paul II talks of the ‘daily heroism’ of dedicated mothers28.

As I have said, the Church believes that reflection on our human nature tells us much about what is moral. Breastfeeding is clearly vital to human ecology; hence it is something that human communities are morally obliged to facilitate. Indeed, research conducted in the Pontifical University of St Thomas by Fr William Virtue concluded that the Church has consistently taught that mothers have a serious obligation to breastfeed—i.e. an obligation that cannot be neglected except for very good reasons29. This obligation is of the natural law.

Some, however, may object that what I have said will only make stressed working mothers feel more guilty about themselves. To this I can make two replies. First: I know that the it is hard for Western mothers to live as they want to live. Our economic system often all but forces them to work. I am not blaming women, as a class, for the ills of society. Second: if I am making people feel guilty, then, frankly, good. There may be such things as guilty pleasures, guilty indulgences and guilty compromises, but there is no such thing as guilty happiness. Sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind. If guilty mothers demand societal change, then this article will have served a purpose. Reject the culture of the death of meaning; reject ‘chest-feeding’; build a world that respects human nature and the natural human good.

1 Earlier, shorter, version: Roughly speaking, this is because, after the Second World War, the founding fathers of modern Western liberalism concluded that only ‘open’ societies could avoid descending into the horrors of fascism and communism. In the ideal ‘open’ society,

2 The post-war society was to address social problems by applying the (supposedly) philosophically neutral techniques of science to social questions, avoiding the really big and dangerous questions about the meaning of life. Hence the rapid post-war growth of polytechnics that taught social sciences: Popper wanted them to train up experts in cautious, experimental ‘social engineering’.

3 All items mentioned up to here are from the major review, American Academy of Pediatrics, Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk Pediatrics, 2012;129 (3) e827-e841.

4 Newburg D.S., Walker W.A. Protection of the neonate by the innate immune system of developing gut and of human milk. Pediatr Res. 2007;61(January (1)):2–8. and Morrow A.L., Ruiz-Palacios G.M., Altaye M., Jiang X., Guerrero M.L., Meinzen-Derr J.K. Human milk oligosaccharide blood group epitopes and innate immune protection against campylobacter and calicivirus diarrhea in breastfed infants. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2004;554:443–446.

5 Mårild S, Hansson S, Jodal U, Odén A, Svedberg K. Protective effect of breastfeeding against urinary tract infection. Acta Paediatr. 2004;93(2):164-168.

6 Nicholas J Andreas et al, Role of human milk oligosaccharides in Group B Streptococcus colonization, Clinical and Translational Immunology. August 2016.

7 Xu L, Lochhead P, Ko Y, Claggett B, Leong RW, Ananthakrishnan AN. Systematic review with meta-analysis: breastfeeding and the risk of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2017;46(9):780-789. doi:10.1111/apt.14291

8 Public Health England, Guidance: Breastfeeding and Dental Health, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/breastfeeding-and-dental-health/breastfeeding-and-dental-health#breastfeeding-and-dental-health as of 11th August 2020

9 C. Owen, P. Whincup, K. Odoki, J. Gilig, and D Cook, (September 2002) ‘Infant Feeding and Blood Cholesterol: A Study in Adolescents and a Systematic Review’, Pediatrics 110:3, pp597-608.

10 American Academy of Family Physicians, Position paper ‘Breastfeeding’, available at https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/breastfeeding-support.html as of 11th August 2020

11 American Academy of Pediatrics, op. cit.

12 A Lucas et al. Breast Milk and Subsequent Intelligence Quotient in Children Born Preterm, Lancet 1992;339 pp.261-264

13 L.Horwood and D. Fertusson. Breastfeeding and Later Cognitive and Academic Outcomes, Pediatrics 1998;101:1

14 E. Mortensen, K. Michaelsen, S. Sanders and J. Reinisch, The Association Between Duration of Breastfeeding and Adult Intelligence. Journal of the American Medical Association 2002;287:18 pp.2365-2371

15Birch E, Birch D, Hoffman D, Hale L, Everett M, Uauy R. Breast-feeding and optimal visual development. J Pediatr Ophthalmol Strabismus. 1993;30(1):33-38.

16 Dòrea JG. Breastfeeding is an essential complement to vaccination. Acta Paediatr. 2009;98(8):1244-1250.

17 Laurence Grummer-Strawn and Zuguo Mei, Does Breastfeeding Protect Against Pediatric Overweight? Analysis of Longitudinal Data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System’, Pediatrics 2004;113:2 pp.81-86

18 American Academy of Pediatrics op. cit.

19 Kippley (2005) p.72

20American Academy of Pediatrics op. cit.

21 Yi X, Zhu J, Zhu X, Liu GJ, Wu L. Breastfeeding and thyroid cancer risk in women: A dose-response meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Clin Nutr. 2016;35(5):1039-1046.

22 Jordan SJ, Na R, Johnatty SE, et al. Breastfeeding and Endometrial Cancer Risk: An Analysis From the Epidemiology of Endometrial Cancer Consortium. Obstet Gynecol. 2017;129(6):1059-1067

23 Figueiredo, B., C. Canario, and T. Field, Breastfeeding is negatively affected by prenatal depression and reduces postpartum depression. Psychol Med, 2014;44(5): 927-936.

24 Krysko KM, Rutatangwa A, Graves J, Lazar A, Waubant E. Association Between Breastfeeding and Postpartum Multiple Sclerosis Relapses: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Neurol. 2020;77(3):327–338. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2019.4173

25 Bjørnerem A, Ahmed LA, Jørgensen L, Størmer J, Joakimsen RM. Breastfeeding protects against hip fracture in postmenopausal women: the Tromsø study. J Bone Miner Res. 2011;26(12):2843-2850

26 Kippley (2005) chapter 2 citing various sources.

27 World Health Organization, ‘Infant and young child feeding’, available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infant-and-young-child-feeding as of 10th August 2020

28 Evangelium Vitae n.86

29 Kippley (2005) p.31 citing Fr William Virtue (1995) Mother and Infant: The Moral Theology of Embodied Self-Giving in Motherhood in Light of the Exemplar Couplet Mary and Jesus Christ, dissertation, Pontifical University of St Thomas, Rome