December 6, 2021

‘Chest is best’ is the new slogan in trans-friendly maternity wards

Controversy over gender-inclusive language in the UK

Gender-inclusive language created a stir in the UK media recently when the maternity services department at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust rechristened itself “peri-natal” services. The changes in terminology were widely ridiculed as extreme wokery:

Staff were suggested to use terms like “pregnant women and people”, “breastfeeding and chestfeeding“, “mothers and birthing parents”. Patients would become “mothers or birthing parents”; “fathers” would become “parent”, “co-parent” or “second biological parent”.

In fact, the term “chestfeeding” is not new. Snopes tracked down a 2018 document from La Leche League Canada and La Leche League USA which encouraged its use for trans and non-binary parents.

Language is always evolving, in the breastfeeding and lactation world as elsewhere. Many of the terms used 20 or 30 years ago would be unfamiliar to parents today, and La Leche League must continue to adapt and evolve as language in the lactation area does as well.

However, as long ago as 2016, two academics from the University of Pennsylvania medical school, criticised the term “breastfeeding” as “ethically problematic” and “stigmatizing” in an opinion piece in the leading journal Pediatrics.

we are concerned about breastfeeding promotion that praises breastfeeding as the “natural” way to feed infants. This messaging plays into a powerful perspective that “natural” approaches to health are better, a view examined in a recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Promoting breastfeeding as “natural” may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that “natural” approaches are presumptively healthier. This may ultimately challenge public health’s aims in other contexts, particularly childhood vaccination.

Interestingly, although this article was published only five years ago, it did not allude to transgender issues. Its focus was squarely on the word “natural”.

Coupling nature with motherhood, however, can inadvertently support biologically deterministic arguments about the roles of men and women in the family (for example, that women should be the primary caretakers of children). Referencing the “natural” in breastfeeding promotion, then, may inadvertently endorse a controversial set of values about family life and gender roles, which would be ethically inappropriate.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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