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An Example of Capitalism Literally Milking the Poor
Posted on Apr 19, 2017
By Julie Bindel
“Selling breast milk is an opportunity to help two sections of people,” Newall says. “All those mothers who are risking their child’s lives by buying [breast milk] online, and at the same time, helping a developing country like Cambodia. They need good jobs and they need to feed their kids.”
The day after my visit to Ambrosia Labs, I met with Ros Sopheap, executive director of the nongovernmental organization Gender and Development for Cambodia. She looked appalled when I told her about my visit to the clinic. According to Sopheap, the industry “is against everything women are trying to change in terms of inequality and human rights abuses.”
It is also thought to be dangerous to export breast milk. In a 2015 peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine entitled “More than a lucrative liquid: the risks for adult consumers of human breast milk bought from the online market,” the authors found that “[c]hemical and environmental contaminants are known to make their way into breast milk, just like the food chain more broadly.”
Recalling the baby at the clinic who appeared unable to satisfy her hunger while feeding, I asked Newall by email what measures his company put in place to ensure the women’s own babies are not deprived of milk in order to feed infants of well-off Westerners. His answer: “We do not employ any brokers. We have put protective measures in place so that our employees’ children do not go hungry as a result of our business.”
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“Our Cambodian sisters have [pleaded] that we not allow this business to be shut down,” the document says. “Because of them and for our wives and our children we will not be broken.” The tactics of the breast milk, surrogacy and prostitution brokers have one key theme in common: They present themselves and their trade as altruistic services, rather than as exploitation and abuse.
On my return to the U.K., I emailed Ambrosia Labs to give its founders an opportunity to refute my claims that the breast milk trade in general, and their clinic in particular, trades on vulnerability and exploitation purely for profit.
“We offer mothers employment they wouldn’t otherwise have in favorable, clean, and safe conditions. Our employees have found our clinics preferable to other available employment. … Our business practices provide Cambodian women an alternative source of income while allowing them to work less and take care of their families,” Newall wrote in response. “Our business also provides a safe source of donor milk for infants in need.”
Days after I left Cambodia, the clinic ceased trade, and a week later the government suspended the trade and exportation of breast milk. The order from the government to the health ministry reads, “Although Cambodia is poor and [life is] difficult, it is not at the level that it will sell breast milk from mothers.”
What the trade in breast milk tells us is that capitalism has come full circle in a way it has never done before, not even with the prostitution market. The base-line purpose of commerce is to feed our children, but the price of this trade demands that children not be fed in the first place.
The trade in breast milk commodifies the unique bond between a mother and child. Profit is being made from a source of nourishment that even impoverished women have access to. Unless, of course, exploiters decide to put a price on it. The milk trade is a market in hunger and misery.
Mothers who are vulnerable to breast milk brokers need to be given financial opportunities to pay their bills without taking food out of their own children’s mouths. They need to be afforded dignity and given nutritious food for themselves and their families. No woman alive would sell food meant for her baby if she had an alternative.
Julie Bindel is a journalist, author, broadcaster and researcher. Since 1979, she has been active in the global campaign to end violence toward women and children.
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