Has gender ideology captured the Australian Breastfeeding Association?

Has gender ideology captured the Australian Breastfeeding Association?

If ignoring the significance of biological sex in the context of women’s sport requires impressive powers of wilful blindness, then ignoring it while attempting to teach new mothers about breastfeeding takes this to a whole new level. The Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) now seems determined to do this and is busily ejecting volunteer counsellors who persist in pointing out the facts of female physicality.

Jasmine Sussex is one of seven counsellors to be formally investigated by the ABA leadership and one of five to be sacked. For the last fifteen years, Sussex (who is a mother of three herself) has given up her time to help new mothers master the skill of breastfeeding. Perhaps only women who have grappled with squealing infants in the anxious days after giving birth will understand the enormous debt of gratitude that countless women must owe to Sussex for her moral support and practical advice. How extraordinary then, for the ABA to suddenly expel someone of such unquestioned competence.

Instead of retreating quietly, however, Sussex is speaking out. The same commitment to the welfare of mothers and babies that inspired her to volunteer with the ABA all these years now compels her to challenge the incursion of gender ideology. Sussex rightly points out the ABA cannot serve two antithetical objectives at the same time: it can comply with the precepts of gender ideology (which requires the erasure of sex differences between men and women) or it can support women as they grapple with functions of the female body. It cannot do both.  

In Sussex’s own words:

“When breastfeeding is treated as a rainbow human rights issue, the ability to critically think about the health and support needs of mothers and babies rapidly declines. More worryingly, the authoritarian top-down implementation of changes in language and in practice by breastfeeding charities prioritises affirmation of adult gender identity desires over the baby’s human right to his or her mother’s milk.”

The ABA was founded in 1964 by mothers for mothers. Unsurprisingly, given its core mission, sex-specific words such as “mother”, “breastfeeding” and “breast milk” appear everywhere in its constitution, code of ethics and operational literature.

About eighteen months ago, a contingent within the ABA’s leadership accepted $20,000 from Rainbow Families to develop a transgender-inclusive booklet entitled “Breastfeeding, Chestfeeding and Human Milk Feeding”. The ABA has insisted that it is not erasing sexed language in its general operations and that this booklet exists only to support one-to-one communications in situations where the sex-specific language of “woman” or “mother” might be alienating to transmen or non-binary parents.  

The women now being ejected from the ABA, however, claim this significantly understates the facts. ABA counsellors began speaking out against what they see as an ideological take-over of their organisation last year, when it was revealed that leadership had initiated a formal disciplinary process to investigate counsellors accused of using harmful and intimidating language in an ABA Facebook discussion group. According to reports at the time, counsellors who posted using the word “parent” complained of feeling “subtly corrected” when other counsellors failed to follow their lead and responded using the word “mother” instead.

As The Age reports:

“The complainants said they were caused harm and believed ‘the near obsessive use of the word mother suggests that others are not welcome in the ABA’.”

Sussex has responded by saying:

“95 per cent of breastfeeding counsellors use that word. That is our language. We know only women can breastfeed. It is a really small group in the association that are struggling with reality.” 

Clearly there are many within the ABA who are appalled at how Sussex and her colleagues have been treated. 37 association members, including two former board members, have written to the board describing the complaint as “frivolous and unjustified” and calling for an apology to the seven volunteers for treatment which “falls below the reasonable standard of care that any workplace should provide”.

Instead, the ABA has now chosen to sack the women. Sussex says she has been sacked for using the word “mother”. The ABA has denied this, instead hinting darkly that the dismissal was prompted by a breach of the code of conduct. It is true that ABA counsellors are bound by their code of ethics not to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and this has provided leverage for a small ideological contingent in the ABA’s leadership to encourage a general deference to gender ideology within the organisation. In opposing this, Sussex has committed thought-crimes.

For example, Sussex insists that she is only expert as a mother-to-mother support person. But ABA’s training now requires counsellors to offer support to biological males who identify as mothers in their efforts to lactate. In a couple of documented cases world-wide, chemical stimulation has succeeded in coaxing from the nipples of biological males a few droplets of … something. Sussex insists that this is not breastfeeding:

'ABA says we should support all parents who want to human milk [feed] their babies,' Ms Sussex told Daily Mail Australia.

But men shouldn't breastfeed because breastfeeding is for the baby. 

'Natal males can take feminine hormones to grow breasts. But there is no evidence that any male induced milk is equivalent to mother's milk. 

'We have no idea if the substance is even milk. It's absolutely a human experiment on babies.'

Sussex has also explained that ABA’s breast-feeding classes are now potentially open to transwomen. The presence of biological males would obviously have the effect of inhibiting discussion in a group where women need to speak freely about female bodily functions and where practical demonstrations might involve baring their breasts. Such “inclusion” is clearly beyond the “one-to-one” counselling envisaged for the Rainbow Families brochure – it begins to compromise the ABA’s ability to minister to its principle target audience.

Sex-specific language is vital for clear communication, particularly when helping women whose first language is not English or who have low education or literacy. Professor Hannah Dahlen, from the University of Western Sydney’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, points to the particular importance in a multicultural society of ensuring new parents are not confused by language they can’t relate to. “Lactating parent” or “human milk feeding” obviously only adds barriers to comprehension and is therefore antithetical to the ABA’s core mission of helping mothers feed babies. 

To add to the list of her thought-crimes Sussex points out that it is ludicrous for the ABA, an organisation dedicated to promoting the benefits of breastfeeding, to endorse an ideology that encourages mastectomy for gender dysphoric young women. In listing their transition regrets, many detransitioners dwell on the fact that they will never be able to breastfeed their children – even if they are fortunate enough to still be fertile after puberty blockers and hormones.

Sussex points out that more is at stake here than simply the interests of breastfeeding mothers and their babies, important as those are. More fundamentally, forced deference to gender ideology threatens all women’s rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Sussex understands correctly that the end game of gender ideology is not “inclusion of a vulnerable minority” but the erasure of biological sex for everyone. She is right to point out that in all sorts of ways, when gender ideology takes precedence, women lose out.

Small wonder, perhaps, that the small faction in the ABA’s leadership that believes pushing gender ideology is their ticket to moral superiority cannot bear to be confronted with objections as cogent and inarguable as those offered by Sussex. Rather than confront the arguments, the ABA’s leadership is instead trying to silence female-centric perspectives by sacking the women who refuse to sweep biological facts under the rug.

So far, it isn’t working. Rather than being suppressed, Sussex is to be commended for her courage in continuing to speak to biological facts in her work with mothers and babies. This week, her story broke across multiple media outlets (see here, here, here and here). Having failed to shut her up by firing her, the gender ideology advocates in ABA’s leadership are now considering whether it might be possible to remove Sussex as a voting and financial member of the organisation altogether. There is a clause in the constitution that prohibits members engaging publicly in “sectarian controversy”.  

If she is to be accused of belonging to a sect, Sussex would like to know which one it is. Is it now “sectarian” to believe that women are female and that only women breastfeed? If so, this same heretical belief is shared by the vast majority of Australians (not to mention humanity across cultures and throughout history). These desperate efforts to muffle her only add weight to Sussex’s contention that this trouble is entirely explained as the work of a small ideologically-convinced contingent that have lost touch with reality. 

According to Sussex, the overwhelming majority of ABA members are sensible women. We can only hope that the ABA’s leadership finds the necessary fortitude to support them. Unless the ABA and its volunteers are free to recognise women’s unique physiology and reproductive functions, then the organisation will ultimately fail in its mission to serve the interests of women and babies.

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 ▷