The XX Factor

Ethicist Chuck Klosterman Gives Ammunition to Pro-Breastfeeding Busybodies

Ethical women.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Since assuming the mantle of Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine last summer, Chuck Klosterman has been repeatedly accused of doling out bad advice. Readers overwhelmingly disagreed with his suggestion that a woman defer breaking up with her sick boyfriend to spare him additional pain, and academics disputed his assertion that there’s nothing wrong with a studentsubmitting the same paper for more than one class. But this weekend’s column might be the worst yet, as Klosterman attempts to provide an ethical justification for lecturing strangers about the benefits of breastfeeding.

The letter writer is a volunteer who sorts mail for an impoverished American Indian community and also promotes infant health, since neonatal mortality rates are worse in the Native population than among non-Hispanic whites. “While distributing mail, I found an ‘introductory’ infant-formula package for a Native mom,” the writer recounts.

My first instinct, knowing the proven health advantages of breast-feeding, was to toss the package into the garbage, which seemed unethical. But it seems more unethical, given the higher infant mortality rates, to give her formula marketing materials without providing her the information that breast-feeding is better for her baby.

OK, so we are dealing with a person who thinks it’s morally preferable to steal a stranger’s mail and throw it away than to withhold her opinion about the best way to raise children. The correct answer to this question is glaringly obvious: MYOB. If this were a reasonable advice column—like Carolyn Hax’sSarah Bunting’s, or that of the Times’ other Sunday columnist, Philip Galanes—I would be gleefully rubbing my hands together at this point in anticipation of the smackdown to come. But not only does Klosterman fail to school the inquirer in Boundaries 101, he agrees with her. (Or him—the gender of the letter writer isn’t clear.)

To his modest credit, Klosterman briefly acknowledges that stealing mail is illegal. “But,” he wordily continues, “can anyone objectively argue that the upside of upholding a man-made law regarding the improper disposal of unsolicited mail is greater than the downside of placing an already at-risk child in a potentially amplified position of peril?” He goes on to advise the letter writer to give the woman the formula, “but not before urging her to consider the value of breast-feeding.”

Never mind that some women can’t breastfeed without supplementing with formula, or can’t breastfeed at all, or have to wean their infants early so that they can go back to their job(s) before they run out of rent money. And never mind that according to the Department of Health and Human Services, three of the top four causes of infant death among American Indians—congenital malformations, low birth weight, and accidents—have absolutely nothing to do with breastfeeding. (The other cause, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, occurs for mysterious reasons, but not breastfeeding is only one of many risk factors.) Klosterman thinks it would be unethical for strangers not to scold women who consider buying formula. Now obviously, some busybodies already believe this, but it certainly doesn’t help matters to have someone who calls himself “the Ethicist” lending credence to the scolds. Never have I so wished that the Times Magazine would change the name of Klosterman’s column to “Just a Guy Considering Problems,” as Times public editor Margaret Sullivan jokingly suggested earlier this year.

Even if it were, this Guy’s advice also seems tinged with paternalism and class bias. Suppose the letter writer were a nanny whose job consisted of taking care of her wealthy boss’s kids and also fetching the mail. Would Klosterman advise such an advice-seeker to inform her boss about the benefits of breastfeeding before handing over formula that was sent in the mail? Maybe, but I bet he’d assume the mother in that scenario to be an adult capable of making her own decisions about how to raise her children—which is pretty much always the right assumption.