By now it seems like everyone has either seen or heard about the Nightline segment that aired on ABC on Thursday February 12, 2009 showing actress Salma Hayek breastfeeding another woman’s starving baby during her trip to Sierra Leone to support a tetanus-vaccination project. I have to admit that while checking the news Friday morning, this story did indeed catch my eye as well. As one can imagine, comments posted for the video ranged from praise and adoration to outrage and disgust.
Many news sources have tried to present the story in the context of the current debate surrounding breast milk banking, cross nursing, and wet nursing (for example see the recent Time magazine and ABC news articles on the story). Some include La Leche League’s official position statement on human milk banking and cross & wet nursing as evidence of the wrongness of Hayek’s actions. In contrast, I would like to take the discussion out of this context. I believe that the media’s portrayal of this story and hence the public’s reaction to it is completely and utterly misguided in the fact that they fail to approach the story in the context of Hayek’s motivation and reasons for her actions in Sierra Leone.
According to the segment and Hayek’s own explanations, the actress was not breastfeeding this baby to promote cross nursing, wet nursing, or even human milk banking. In fact, it does not even matter what side of that debate she supports! Of course one can argue against her actions (whether founded or unfounded) by citing emotional, physical, or cultural risks and concerns. Let us remember that Hayek states she breastfed that baby because she saw a child in need…a child in need in a country where infant mortality and starvation rates are heartbreakingly high and stigmas surrounding breastfeeding negatively affect the amount of woman willing and able to breastfeed for a healthy and adequate amount of time. In addition, it is motivating to see a celebrity advocate for breastfeeding as both normal and natural! (We certainly do not see this enough in our society). Instead of analyzing the situation, why don’t we just look at the story as inspirational for the intrinsic principle it promotes and message it sends rather than the practicality of the action itself, just as the story of Jiang Xiaojuan’s heroic breast-feeding of several babies orphaned by China’s devastating earthquake in May of 2008 is. Anyone arguing against Xiajuan’s heroic actions on the basis of risk or infection or disloyalty to her own nursing baby is sorely missing the point!
With the availability of modern technology that allows thorough testing and pasteurization of donated breast milk, I could see that from a public health standpoint, perhaps cross nursing is not something to support in a formal position statement. But when it comes to people helping people in tough times or devastating crises, let us focus on the good in this inspirational and empowering story!