Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Commodified Breast Milk: From a Ethical View

If you were in our Bioethics class a few weeks ago then I'm sure you remember our very lively (slightly heated) discussion about the commodification of breast milk. It was a very personal topic for me, but we can save those reasons for my next post. What I want this post to focus on is the ethical issue of WHO should receive the breast milk instead of how is was collected.

There are two main markets for breast milk currently. The first is pretty obvious: babies. The second market are adult individuals who are wanting to consume human breast milk for nutrition supplemental reasons.

I would like to think that most of us believe that if a baby is in need of breast milk and the mother can not provide any for whatever reason, that they should be allowed the milk from another woman. However, how should they get the milk? Should it perhaps come from a family member or friend of the parents? And if that's not an option then what? The "what" is a milk donor.

Sharing milk is not a new radical idea. People have been doing it for thousands of years and thankfully with time there have come advancements in how the milk is collected, treated, and given.

There are currently 19 milk banks in the U.S. with more soon to come. These milk banks are run by The Human Milk Banking Association of North America. The milk is received as a donation (shipping is normally paid by company) and then distributed to hospitals who normally do not have to pay for it. I would love to say that the babies in need then in turn receive the milk for free, but due to hospital operating costs the average cost of breast milk is $4-5 USD.

Many women who have donated breast milk (myself included) think charging a parent for the breast milk that their child desperately needs that was given to the hospital for ridiculous. So what do most women do about it? They quit donating to the banks. Sure it makes them feel better to "stick it to the man", but at what cost? As a parent I would pay any amount for something that could mean the difference between my child thriving or dying regardless of if the person selling it to me got it for free or not.

Are you wondering where this breast milk is going if not donated to the milk banks? It goes onto the private market. Please don't confuse this with some sketchy black market operation. It is completely legal to sell breast milk in a private transaction.

There are two buyers in the private market - desperate parents and adults who want it for themselves. Even though the parents may get the milk for free this way that are still running a high risk unless they have the milk tested and pasteurized, and guess how much that costs? $3-4 per ounce. Not very fair, huh? They either have to take a risk or trust that the donor has taken care of not only herself, but also the handling and storage of the milk.

So what about the adults who are wanting it for supplements? They are who most people are blaming for driving up the market on breast milk. The main reason most of the adults have for wanting breast milk is for the amazing nutrients it offers to supplement their body building regimen. Since most of these buyers normally don't have the stress of making sure the milk is absolutely perfect they will buy from the market and not pay to have it tested or pasteurized. The average cost of human breast milk purchased for this reason is $1-2 per ounce plus the cost of shipping.

This seems to be a bit backwards. The ones who need it the most, often preterm babies in the NICU, pay the most, and those who don't have any medical need for it pay the least.

Fair? Nope, it isn't, not one single ounce.


  1. I wasn't aware, before the class you mention, that there was such a raging debate surrounding this issue. Shouldn't have been. But if the market is driving a shortage for those who most need the milk, in order to meet demand from a niche market of bodybuilding obsessives, then this is an important bioethical topic.

    1. Shouldn't have been surprised, I meant to say...