The New York Times reported Sunday that United States threatened to sanction Ecuador if they did not drop the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly’s resolution to encourage breastfeeding.
Aside from encouraging parents to breastfeed, the resolution urges countries to try to limit the inaccurate marketing of formulas, or breast milk substitutes. A Lancet study from 2016 revealed that breastfeeding could potentially prevent over 800,000 infant deaths worldwide, in addition to yielding billions in savings.
U.S. officials, however, attempted to dilute the resolution in order to continue to support the economic interests of formula manufacturers. Officials removed passages strictly calling for countries to protect children by promoting the practice of breastfeeding instead of buying formula.
When these edits did not prevent the bill from being introduced, the U.S. threatened to “unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid,” on Ecuador, the resolution’s sponsor. The U.S. is currently providing military assistance to protect the border of northern Ecuador from any violence spilling over from Columbia.
Fearful of these retaliations and their potential consequences, Ecuador complied and immediately dropped the resolution. In response to America’s backlash, an Ecuadorian official said, “We were shocked because we didn’t understand how such a small matter like breast-feeding could provoke such a dramatic response.”
America’s fierce opposition to the measure took health advocates and officials by surprise. Patti Rundall, the policy director of Baby Milk Action, said, “We were astonished, appalled and also saddened.”
Advocates attempted to find another sponsor, but several countries refused, fearing retaliation from the U.S.
Eventually, Russia decided to introduce the resolution, the U.S. not daring to challenge them. An unidentified Russian delegate claimed that Russia is not trying to be a hero, “but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world.”
After the State Department refused to comment, an anonymous spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, released a statement, reading, “The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children. We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.” The final resolution, however, retains most of the original language, only omitting the initial measure’s demand that the World Health Organization aid countries aiming to eliminate the misleading marketing of infant formulas and foods.