It’s not everyday that we get to see great masses of people alter their attitudes as a cherished act of motherhood is converted into a lucrative market. That’s what is happening these days with breast milk, as recently reported by the New York Times. Biotech firms want to capitalize on the rich therapeutic potential of breast milk by turning it into high-tech medical products that can fight infections, improve blood clotting and deal with intestinal and infectious diseases.
This keen commercial interest in acquiring breast milk – an intimate part of the human body associated with maternal love and nourishment – raises all sorts of troubling new questions. Who will have privileged access to breast milk in the future – biotech firms backed by the deep pockets of venture capitalists, or premature babies who need the milk, especially from their own mothers? Will the emerging big business of breast milk lead to the closing of “milk banks” that provide donated breast milk to hospitals and nursing mothers at cost (i.e., the costs of donor-screening and pasteurization)?
The rise of a new market for breast milk brings to the fore the fundamental issue of inalienability – the idea that certain things are so valued that it is not ethically appropriate to exchange them for money in the marketplace. This is a topic that is near and dear to commoners, of course, who are constantly trying to prevent and reverse market enclosures that commodify everything from water and the atmosphere to the human genome and childhood.
Years ago, I learned a lot about inalienability from Margaret Jane Radin’s book Contested Commodities: The Trouble with Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts and Other Things (Harvard University Press, 1996). She argues that liberal societies have a recurrent problem caused by a philosophical conundrum: It values freedom and individual choice, but it also values the dignity of personhood. So what happens when our “freedom of choice” in the marketplace runs over our integrity and dignity as human beings – such as having intimate aspects of our bodies converted into market commodities?