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Claire Bidwell Smith

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More Pressure to Breast-Feed? The IRS Rules Against Tax Relief for Formula Feeders

Posted: 07/23/09 12:57 PM ET

When I read Hanna Rosin's "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" article in the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly, I was well into my third trimester with my first baby. I had no plans other than to breast-feed, but reading this article gave me pause. In it, Rosin compares breast-feeding to the introduction of the vacuum cleaner, just another way to keep women tied to the household. She cites vast amounts of research to support the case that there isn't much difference between a breast-fed baby and one fed formula. She also highlights the fierce divide breast-feeding creates between a woman and her husband, one of them free to roam the world while the other remains tethered to the child.

This week, an article by Jenny Hontz on Newsweek's blog reveals that the IRS has ruled against tax relief for women who are medically forced to use formula after a double-mastectomy, and I can't help linking this and Rosin's article together. It feels, to me, to be just further evidence of the ever-growing case against formula.

As a new mother, just beginning to delve into this world (my daughter is now 6 weeks old), I have to say that the pressure to breast-feed is undeniable. From Angelina Jolie's perfect mothering examples to Dr. Sears and his ubiquitous attachment campaign, to that persistent "Breast is Best" phrase, which I can't even remember where I heard for the first time. As a brand new mom I was surprised by the militant amount of warnings I received, from family members to co-workers (some of whom don't even have kids), about how I should breast-feed my child. And while I never considered doing otherwise, I have to wonder how this pressure feels to women who are unable to breast-feed.

The Newsweek article profiles a woman who had a double-mastectomy in 2006 before the birth of her second child. After looking through the list of expendable medical expenses in her flexible spending account, the mother hoped to be able to deduct the cost of formula. After all, as the article states, "Dr. Scholl's footpads, sunscreen, birth control and prescription sunglasses all qualify as medical care for the 'diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease.' People with hearing impairments are allowed to include the cost of equipment to help them watch TV, and anyone who has lost a limb can count the cost of modifying a car as pre-tax income. Hypnosis, yoga, colon cleansing, massage and even dancing lessons are also considered medical costs with a doctor's note. However, infant formula for women medically unable to breast-feed because of breast cancer or HIV was nowhere on the list."

But the IRS ruled that formula is a personal expenditure (unlike yoga).

I can't help feeling outraged. First, that the ruling fell this way at all. I don't think that we should give tax breaks to everyone who wants to feed their baby formula, but for those who are medically unable to breast-feed and have no choice, I would hope that they would receive the same treatment as someone with a hearing impairment who gets to write off expensive medical equipment to supplement their loss. With formula coming in around a grand a year for an infant, this just seems further evidence of our ever-failing healthcare system.

I'm starting to wonder where the ceiling is on this "Breast is Best" campaign. I'm well into my 6th week of exclusive breast-feeding and I like it more than I thought I would. I like the bond it creates between me and my daughter, and I like the idea that I am able to provide nourishment from my own body. What I don't like is how constant it is, how time-consuming it is, and I don't like the divide it has created between me and my husband when it comes to our care-giving responsibilities. While I plan to soldier on (wish me luck as I enter the world of regular pumping in two weeks when I resume work), I still want to advocate for my sisters who can't/won't/don't want to breast-feed.

I'd like to see a turn towards a more forgiving stance on formula. Unfortunately, this IRS ruling doesn't leave me feeling optimistic.

 
 
 

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