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The Trump administration made trade threats to Ecuador over … breastfeeding

The US got Ecuador to back down from a breastfeeding resolution by threatening trade retaliation and pulling military aid.

A baby in a crib. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The United States threatened to hit Ecuador with retaliatory trade measures and pull military aid because the South American country is proposing an international resolution that encourages breastfeeding. The US eventually agreed to the resolution — when Russia backed it.

American officials surprised international delegates at the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly in May when they opposed a widely popular resolution to promote breastfeeding, according to a Sunday report by Andrew Jacobs for the New York Times. Specifically, they pushed to remove language asking governments to “protect, promote, and support breast-feeding.” They also took issue with a passage that called for policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that may harm children.

It appears that the administration of President Donald Trump sided with corporate interests — the $70 billion infant formula industry — over the health and well-being of kids around the globe. The baby food industry is primarily based in the US and Europe.

The Americans were so ardent in their opposition that they made serious threats to Ecuadorian delegates, who were going to introduce the resolution. According to the Times, the Americans said if Ecuador didn’t drop the proposal, “Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid.”

The resolution ultimately made its way through, as a result of Russian intervention. “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,” a Russian delegate told the Times. The US did not make the same threats to Russia as it had to Ecuador, and the resolution was passed mostly in its original form.

The Times spoke to more than a dozen participants at the Geneva meeting. A lot of them were afraid to be named on the record because they feared the US might retaliate, as it apparently had threatened to do with Ecuador.

Caitlin Oakley, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in a statement said that the portrayal of the US position in Geneva as anti-breastfeeding was “patently false.”

She continued: “The United States has a long history of supporting mothers and breastfeeding around the world and is the largest bilateral donor of such foreign assistance programs. The issues being debated, were not about whether one supports breastfeeding. The United States was fighting to protect women’s abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies. Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported.”

A HHS spokesperson also said the department was the lead agency in negotiations on the resolution and denied that trade threats had been made.

President Trump responded on Twitter as well and defended the administration’s stance while at the same time calling the story “fake news.”

The Trump administration seems to have a habit of picking corporations over health

The baby food industry is a multi-billion-dollar one, and lobbyists for it attended the Geneva meetings. There isn’t direct evidence they were involved with the Americans’ opposition to the breastfeeding resolution, but it’s unlikely they were upset about it. Women in wealthy countries are breastfeeding more, and most of the formula industry’s growth is coming from developing nations.

The Times story alone contains multiple examples of the US delegation seemingly prioritizing business interests over health during that same May Geneva meeting: The US got statements supporting soda taxes removed from an obesity document; it tried and failed to kill a WHO effort to help poor countries access more medicine; and it successfully struck language in the breastfeeding resolution that told the WHO to provide technical support for countries trying to stop the promotion of foods harmful to children.

To be sure, the Trump administration does not have an A+ record of prioritizing children abroad or in the United States. Ousted Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt repealed a ban on the pesticide chloryprifos, which evidence suggests causes developmental problems in children. And the US federal government this year separated hundreds of migrant children from their parents at the border. This included reportedly a case of separating a breastfeeding baby from its mother.

Trump has called breastfeeding “disgusting”

The president himself has also expressed revulsion at the act of breastfeeding.

In a 2011 deposition Trump reportedly became upset when an attorney named Elizabeth Beck requested a break to pump breast milk for her 3-month-old daughter. The lawyer, Elizabeth Beck, told CNN in 2015 that Trump had called her “disgusting.”

Trump’s lawyer, Allen Garten, didn’t dispute the assertion, and Trump acknowledged to CNN he “might have said that.” Beck took out her breast pump in an effort, she said, to express the urgency of the matter when Trump refused her request for a break. According to a Times report, none of the lawyers in the room said she did anything more than take out the pump, but Trump on Twitter claimed she was trying to “breast pump” in his presence at the deposition, which Beck denies.

He also called a 2012 TIME Magazine cover showing a mother breastfeeding her toddler “disgusting.”

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Ecuador as a Central American country. It is in South America.

Update: The story has been updated with statement from a Health and Human Services spokesperson and President Trump’s tweet.

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