Breastfeeding, Zoe's Law and the Right to Choose

18 September 2013
Tomorrow the NSW government will debate "Zoe's Law", the legislation named after the baby girl stillborn after her mother Brodie Donegan was hit by a car driven by a drug-affected at 32 weeks of pregnancy. Now, whilst no one could fail to have the utmost sympathy for Ms Donegan and her family, this is a deeply troubling piece of legislation. As the law stood when Ms Donegan was injured in 2009, the death of Zoe was recognised as gross bodily harm to her mother. "Zoe's Law" would, for the first time in NSW, define a foetus of over 20 weeks gestation as a person. We have been assured that the law will not affect access to abortion (which as it is, is technically a crime in NSW anyway) but it is hard not to be wary. A version of Zoe's Law was initially proposed in 2010 under the then Labor government; they commissioned Michael Campbell QC to determine if any review of the Crimes Act was necessary to allow for cases that cause death to the foetus. The recommendation was that current laws were appropriate. But with the change in government, this Act has been drafted by the Reverend Fred Nile MLC, a well known anti-abortion crusader, with the support of the NSW Attorney General and former president of NSW Right to Life, Greg Smith. It is hard to fathom that there is no ideological intent behind the Bill to curtail reproductive rights - foetal personhood is a well-known tactic employed by anti-abortion crusaders in the U.S. Ms Donegan has stated that she is pro-choice, but it is terribly sad and deeply worrying her tragic situation has been adopted as a moral crusade by the likes of Fred Nile.

 I got to thinking about womens's rights to decide what they do with their own bodies as I read of the latest move to push the breast is best message - this time the ludicrous proposal that tins of baby formula should carry cigarette-style health warnings of the risks of not breastfeeding (perhaps they could include graphic pictures of fat kids?). Really, is this going to work to increase the breastfeeding rates? Most women do want to breastfeed, and try, and struggle, and give up for a multitude of reasons - none of them involving thinking formula feeding is nutritionally just as good; the majority of them accompanied by great whacking loads of guilt. The message to breastfeed is everywhere - so much so that, as I've written about previously, I struggled through establishing breastfeeding in a haze of pain and PND so horrendous I've pretty much no recollection of my son's first few months; I wish someone had told me "if this is all too hard, you don't have to; it's not the end of the world", and even though we got through those early days and breastfed for 16 months, if I had my time over I wouldn't breastfeed. Bad! Selfish mother! Just about every mother who is bottle feeding feels the need to justify themselves, present their reasons and hope they're found good enough. I'm sick of the guilt heaped on women for not breastfeeding, but not just that. If as feminists we support women's right to make choices about their own bodies, then we need to support women who decide they don't want to breastfeed because they just don't want to.

It's heresy to say that in some feminist parenting circles. The line runs that the patriarchal spectre of Big Formula has turned us against breastfeeding; as women, we can make the strong, empowering decision to reclaim our natural ability to feed our babies ourselves. And that's great - if that's what you want to do. But what if a woman just doesn't want to turn her breasts over for the nourishment of another person for six or twelve months? Why do feminists, who would march in the street for a woman's right to not carry a pregnancy against her will, insist she must breastfeed her child or be selfish, lazy, not caring about her child (funnily enough some of the same accusations "pro-lifers" level at women who have abortions)? Most women do want to breastfeed, as I've said. Women are not brainwashed drones who need to be protected from the evils of big formula; we can make an informed if reluctant choice. But maybe we need to lay off the ones who don't want to, as well as the ones that can't. It looks like we'll have enough people telling us what to do with our bodies soon enough.


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