Recently I was browsing a vegan message board and stumbled across a question concerning infants being raised as vegan from birth. Specifically, the author wanted to know whether breast milk qualifies as vegan.
It's not difficult to see why one might be confused over this issue. Vegans, by definition, avoid consuming animal products, and despite the efforts of many humans to distance themselves from other mammals, we people are indeed animals. Breast milk then, could be said to be an animal product, just like milk taken from a cow, goat or sheep.
Yet, there are crucial differences between a vegan person choosing not to drink the milk of a cow or the milk of their mother, and when considering this its important to remember the reason for which vegans avoid animal products. Whilst some become vegan for health reasons - and I won't discuss the health issues related to maternal milk or dairy milk here, as much has been written already - ethical reasons play a large if not sole part in many of our journeys into veganism. Key elements of this moral decision include not only eliminating brutality and physical violence towards other species, but also the prevention of emotional abuse and exploitation. There can be no words to explain the confusion, panic, torment and loss that a cow must experience when her calf is taken away so that her milk can be harvested for humankind, and furthermore, even if she would be willing to donate some milk, there is no common language through which farmers can ask and obtain consent. The cow, like so many of her species, is used for human gain without a chance to object or consider her rights.
A human mother, however, if she freely and actively chooses to breastfeed her son or daughter, is not being exploited. The milk is given voluntarily under conditions agreed to by the donor, and the beneficiary does not profit (financially) from the suffering of the woman in question. For the same reason, eating one's own placenta is a vegan-friendly action, as it is a choice and not a non-consensual action. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world and there are exceptions: family pressure and societal restrictions on breastfeeding may cause emotional distress, and exploitation of those who sell breast milk out of economic necessity is a risk. These women, just like cows, are entitled to support, equality and advocacy for their rights. When all animals have rights, that includes all human animals too, so let's fight for mothers' rights not to be taken advantage of, for babies to have humans' milk, for calves to have cows' milk, and for the same for every species.
Image courtesy of 3dom, used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.