Breastfeeding counsellors placed under investigation for using the term 'mother’

Breastfeeding counsellors placed under investigation for using the term 'mother’

Volunteers with the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) have spoken out about their treatment on social media after seven counsellors were accused of “harassment and intimidation” because of comments they made on a Facebook group.

According to a news report, “the counsellors have been accused of subtly correcting language in the Breastfeeding with ABA Facebook group by using the word ‘mother’ rather than ‘parent’, which other volunteers reported had left them feeling “unsafe, bullied, harassed and intimidated.”

The volunteers were originally banned from all ABA social media groups after being informed by Facebook that complaints had been made against them. It took several days for the nature of the complaints to be communicated to them.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association is an organisation set up by women, for women. It was founded in 1964 by six Melbourne mothers and has now grown into an organisation powered by more than 1,100 volunteers, providing education, support and public awareness about breastfeeding and its benefits for both mothers and infants.

Until recently, its clients were exclusively women, and in particular, mothers, for reasons that are obvious. However, a new push to recognise men who “give birth” and “breastfeed” their babies has wedged the organisation between its need to deliver its core mission to mothers on the one hand, and on the other, be seen to be accommodating transmen who are wanting to breastfeed their babies and who find the female-centric language used in the health care system alienating. 

A study published in 2016 that examined the experiences of “transmasculine individuals with lactation, chestfeeding and gender identity” has called for better communication by care providers to accommodate such individuals and for a change in terminology used by health care professionals so as not to alienate people who do not identify as women but are nevertheless giving birth and going through the process of feeding their babies. This study, which details the experiences of 22 transmasculine individuals who have been pregnant, have given birth or who have engaged in “chestfeeding”, was the first to use the phrase “chestfeeding”.

Since then, a UK hospital trust has followed suit and issued “inclusive” guidelines to midwives, encouraging the use of terms that are more inclusive such as “chestfeeding”, “human milk” and “birthing parent”.

The ABA itself received $20,000 in funding from the LGBTQ+ group Rainbow Families to develop a transgender-inclusive booklet entitled “Breastfeeding, Chestfeeding and Human Milk Feeding.” The booklet also “details how biological males who identify as female can chemically induce ‘human milk feeding’.”

The volunteers who sign up with ABA are mothers or community educators who are passionate about breastfeeding and its benefits for both mothers and their infants.  They often become volunteers after their own (positive or negative) experiences of breastfeeding and a desire to assist and support other mothers. As one counsellor has articulated (on the condition of anonymity):

“(They) identify very strongly as mothers, and value and love the single-sex space — the mother-to-mother space that the association has always provided.”

One of the ABA volunteers “Harriet” (not her real name), who was placed under investigation and finally cleared, reported as follows:

“Being accused of harassment and intimidation for talking about myself as a mother has been one of the most distressing things I have ever experienced. I don’t understand how the idea [of] a breastfeeding counsellor talking about mums creates an unsafe workplace and was ever taken so far.”

“I couldn’t believe it was determined to be intimidation and harassment to use the term ‘mother’ when describing myself. It’s unimaginably awful being accused of wrongdoing for contributing to discussions about how I nourished and tended to my own child and loved that so much I wanted to share it with other new mums.”

Linda (another volunteer who was under investigation) said through tears in the interview:

“…the word ‘mother’ is never hate speech and the ABA has failed us.”

 Another ABA volunteer, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said “that a trans-inclusive focus was putting at risk the values of the organisation and the needs of tens of thousands of women, especially those with poor literacy or migrants who would be confused by arcane terminology.”

“(If the association is captured) the real-world effect will be that the (infant) formula industry will win because normal Australian mothers will look at the ABA and say, you’re not there for me, I don’t speak your language.”

An ABA spokesperson, however, has disputed media reports about this issue:

“We will not be erasing sexed language such as ‘mother’ or ‘mum’ or ‘mothering’ from our vocabulary, and we have no plans to adopt the use of the language such as ‘chestfeeding’ rather than breastfeeding more generally within the association.” 

“While respectful discussion is encouraged, we will hide or remove any comments that are seen to be offensive, discriminatory or incite violence from our social media pages.”

This is a worrying development in the ongoing debate regarding the intersection of trans rights and women’s rights. The negative experience of these ABA volunteers will serve as an example to all future volunteers for the organisation, and more broadly, for women online, about the consequences of not acquiescing to approved trans terminology.

Any suggestion that using the word “mother” is hate speech is absurd. “Pregnant person”, “birthing people”, “uterus owners”, “menstruators”, “chestfeeding”; these terms are all dehumanising, and serve to erase women from the reality of their own biology and lived experience, denying them the uniqueness of their role as mothers.

The ABA is another in a long list of women-only organisations being threatened by the push to take over and remake women-only spaces. The potential ripple effects of challenges such as this on services uniquely intended for women are devastating.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

I’ll stand with women ▷