The Bat Segundo Show: Florence Williams

Florence Williams appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #457. She is most recently the author of Breasts.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating a new career in unique dairy products.

Author: Florence Williams

Subjects Discussed: The history of breastfeeding, formula ushered into the industrial age, artificial selection and breasts, 19th century mothers who raised infants on oatmeal, infant mortality, contaminants within breast milk, the recent Time breastfeeding cover controversy, finding flame retardants in breast milk, why formula isn’t a particularly pure product, public breastfeeding laws, lactating moms with pitchforks, phthalates, the difficulty of studying the effects of industrial chemicals on humans, chemicals untested on humans, California’s Proposition 65, being helpless in the wake of Beltway indifference to industrial chemicals, the increase in breast cancer, the Komen for the Cure controversy earlier in the year, breast cancer awareness, increased rates of breast cancer in China, Zena Werb’s molecular research, the Burke and Hare murders, murdering the poor and selling organs to anatomists, burking, John Landis films, the Anatomy Act of 1832, studying breasts at the cellular level, studying rat mammaries to understand humans, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, ideas on implementing Google Maps for milk ducts, breast apps, knowing more about the cow diary industry than human milk, red wine, the human milk demographic, thought experiments on a human cheese market, making money from human milk, prebiotics, the human breast milk black market, how to confuse vegans with breast milk, imagining a world where one can pick up a gallon of human milk in a bodega, breast enlargement, Dr. Michael Ciaravino and his Houston breast augmentation factory, breasts and patriarchal associations, pornography being ratcheted up, boosting the self-esteem of girls, the virtues of small breasts, Timmie Jean Lindsey and the first breast implant, the problems with objectification from several angles, the problems with early silicone implants, the Dow Corning class action lawsuit, women with breast implants who lose nipple sensation, the marketing of breast implants, the inevitability of living with toxic dust and radiation, and the Stockholm Protocol (and the United States’s failure to sign it).


Correspondent: I wouldn’t to actually get into the history of breastfeeding. Before the 20th century, of course, breastfeeding was the main method of feeding babies. Then we have postwar life ushering in formula and so forth. It has been pointed out, as you say in the book, by evolutionary biologists that 6,000 human genes relating to lactation are among our most stubbornly conserved ones and, if natural selection as even Darwin has pointed out is in favor of lactation, my question to you is: why is artificial selection through industry so very much against it? Just to get things started here.

Williams: Oh, that’s a big question. Well, you know, there have always been women throughout history — even in our deep evolutionary past — who didn’t want to breastfeed or who couldn’t breastfeed. Of course, many women died in child birth. There were lots of breast infections, as well as other infections related to child birth. And so sometimes women couldn’t produce enough milk. And so as I point out in the book, actually wet nursing is one of the oldest professions known to humankind. You know, humans are very flexible and picky in their feeding habits. And some populations wouldn’t wean their infants for years. Three, four years. The recent cover of Time Magazine was so shocking because it had a three-year-old on the cover. But, in fact, the human race would not be here if it weren’t for toddlers breastfeeding in our deep evolutionary past. And then there have always been populations that wean their young earlier. So when formula came along, many, many women thought this was a great liberating phenomenon and invention. And, you know, they went for it with greater and lesser success, I would say. You know, in the 19th century, women sometimes tried to raise their infants on oatmeal, basically, and cow’s milk.

Correspondent: That was sort of the formula of its time.

Williams: That was the formula of its time. It was often a total disaster.

Correspondent: I would imagine oatmeal wouldn’t be exactly quite the same constituency.

Williams: It’s not really everything you need. And so infant mortality was really high among infants who were not breastfed. Fortunately, now, formula is pretty good at approximating the nutritional needs of the infant. But as we’re learning more and more all the time, breast milk isn’t just a food. It’s a medicine.

Correspondent: It’s a way of life.

Williams: It’s a way of life. (laughs)

Correspondent: Sorry. But it is actually a way of life — in all seriousness. As you point out in this book, there’s also a good deal of adulterated breast milk that is running around right now. We’ll get into the whole phthalates and plastic chemicals in just a bit. But I’m wondering. Why aren’t we considering this? I mean, I guess your book is a starting point. Or is this, in fact, one of the serious issues that scientists are presently looking into? Or is it?

Williams: Oh yes. It is. You know, breast milk now has been known to have contaminants in it from the industrial world. I tested my breast milk while I was breastfeeding my second child and I found out that I had flame retardants and jet fuel ingredient. Trace amounts of pesticide.

Correspondent: That’s what you get for having a pilot career.

Williams: (laughs)

Correspondent: Oh, you didn’t have a pilot career! I see.

Williams: Oops! I didn’t have a pilot career.

Correspondent: Wow.

Williams: We all have these substances coursing through our bodies. Unfortunately, some of them really collect in fatty tissue in the breast. And then the breast is really masterful at converting these substances into food. So it ends up in our breast milk. But I would point out that I did continue breastfeeding. I was convinced that the benefits still outweighed the risks. And, of course, formula is not a completely pure product either. It’s also contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides and whatever else is in the water that you’re mixing it with. And then, you know, of course there are sometimes these scares that come out of China where you find melamine and other weird additives in the formula. So unfortunately, I feel that we’ve taken this miraculous evolutionary substance and we’ve degraded it to the point where you can really now almost compare to formula.

Correspondent: So we can, in fact, compare sullied breast milk of the present industrial age with the formula of yesteryear that infants relied upon. Is it safe to say that we can determine which is the greater threat these days? Or what?

Williams: I still think the benefits of breast milk are incredibly profound and amazing. You know, we’re just learning more and more all the time about how breast milk boosts the immune system. And there’s some evidence that despite all the pollutants in breast milk, it still protects the infant possibly from the effects of other chemicals. You know, it boosts the IQ and it helps teach the human immune system what’s a good pathogen, what’s a bad pathogen. So there are all kinds of great reasons to still use it. Of course, unfortunately, in the United States anyway, we don’t really support breastfeeding. As you can tell from the reaction to that Time cover, we’re still deeply uncomfortable with it.

Correspondent: There are still public laws, however, that permit women to breastfeed their children that we’ve seen more and more of in the last decade or two. I think there’s — well, we’re in New York City. So we can be a little hubristic about this.

Williams: You can do anything. (laughs)

Correspondent: You’re coming from Colorado. So I think it’s a little more challenging there.

Williams: Well, there’s always these stories in the news of women who get kicked out of the shopping mall because they need to breastfeed their infant. And sometimes that creates this big reaction. And sometimes lactating moms will come and have protests.

Correspondent: Lactating moms with pitchforks. I love it! (laughs)

Williams: Stay away from them. They’re dangerous!

The Bat Segundo Show #457: Florence Williams (Download MP3)

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Komen for the Cowards: Betraying Breast Cancer

It is estimated by The American Cancer Society that 39,510 women will die of breast cancer in 2012. But the death rate, as severe as it is, has plummeted considerably since 1990 — in large part because women were screened at an early stage. One clinic these women went to was Planned Parenthood, which conducted 747,607 breast exams (PDF) (or 14.5% of its total services) during the year 2010.

You’d think these great dents to a serious threat would be celebrated by politicians of all stripes as an American innovation. Breast cancer is nonpartisan. It doesn’t care whether the victim is Republican or Democrat. But the politicians would rather paint the town red with their twisted tales. Newt Gingrich has recently pledged to defund Planned Parenthood by 2013, conveniently omitting the fact that the organization isn’t just about abortion. He said that he would rather use the money “to promote adoption and other pro-family policies.” But how is family unity bolstered by restricting the ways in which women get screened? Gingrich is right about one thing. If the blessed matriarchs of his twisted Handmaid’s Tale fantasy have dropped dead from breast cancer, then someone will certainly need to spring for the adoption costs.

The anti-abortion, pro-breast cancer screening type may well ask why an “abortion mill” like Planned Parenthood should be funded at all. Well, it’s the same reason why Big Mac haters occasionally dip into a McDonald’s for the addictive fries. If the previously cited breast screenings aren’t enough for them, what of the pap smears, the prenatal care, the diabetes screenings, the STD testing, the male infertility screenings, and the menopause help? Even if we confine Planned Parenthood’s acceptable services to breast screenings, consider the many free exams that Planned Parenthood has offered, including gratis screening in Boise last June. Financially strapped and uninsured women were able to get the needed treatment for early stage breast cancer.

Funding for the Boise exams was provided by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a leading breast cancer charity based in Dallas. This financial support allowed Planned Parenthood to perform more than 170,000 breast exams over the past five years. Yet on Tuesday, Komen put a stop to its PP partnerships. $680,000 of badly needed funds will be withheld because Komen is too gutless and too cowardly to stand up to the ignorant bullies who cannot comprehend that breast cancer is a nonpartisan issue. It has opted to cave to what Nancy L. Cohen identifies as “the sexual counterrevolution” in her recent book, Delirium. And in so doing, Komen aligns itself with a long litany of spiteful mongrels like Jerry Falwell declaring that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals” and deranged outliers like Mike Huckabee, who remarked last year of a pregnant Natalie Portman, “It’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of wedlock children.”

Komen has claimed that newly adopted criteria prevents the charity from offering grants to any organization that is under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities. This would include Planned Parenthood. The investigation which Komen is referring to involves Rep. Cliff Stearns’s probe from last September, in which the Florida Republican ordered Planned Parenthood to turn over numerous financial documents at considerable inconvenience. But as Reps. Henry Waxman and Diana DeGette responded, “The HHS Inspector General and state Medicaid programs regularly audit Planned Parenthood and report publicly on their findings. These audits have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity, or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation.” It’s also worth pointing out that, last year, when an anti-abortion activist attempted a James O’Keefe-style undercover video, Planned Parenthood was quick to alert the FBI.

But which organization is really being the opaque one here? Komen certainly hasn’t been transparent about releasing its new guidelines to the press, much less entering into a discussion about what “investigation” implies under this new policy. Shortly after the defunding news was reported by the Associated Press, Komen spokesperson Leslie Aun scurried away from The New York Times‘s efforts to seek clarification on Tuesday night. Nor did she offer another representative to answer Times reporter Pam Belluck’s claims. It was more cold corporatese about “[implementing] more stringent eligibility and performance criteria.”

In other words, Komen wishes to engage in kangaroo court politics whereby Planned Parenthood is deemed guilty long before the trial is done. As Slate’s Amanda Marcotte has helpfully pointed out, this is hardly the first time that Komen has played needless hardball with organizations fighting the good fight against breast cancer.

That Komen’s move comes in the wake of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signing a bill last May cutting all government funding to Planned Parenthood in his state is fitting. With one draconian sweep of his pen, Daniels refused to consider how federal law already prohibits federal funds from being spent on abortion, as well as the fact that abortion accounts for only 3% of all Planned Parenthood services. Much as Daniels’s preposterous and self-serving effort to woo hard-line conservatives was a redundant piece of legislation unfairly singling out a group providing vital services, Komen’s turncoat tactics are equally callous in the way organizational image has been prioritized over human lives. The Komen capitulation is a disgraceful deracination, a move more attuned to Afghan moral crimes than a country predicated on separation of church and state. It’s a giant gob of spit dripping down the graceful face of a courageous woman who found hope and humor as she was dying and who longed for other women to live. Under the current Komen regime, these noble ideals have evaporated. The time has come to seek more courageous foundations and win the war against breast cancer.