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The Baby-Formula Shortage Signifies a Much Larger Problem at Hand

A baby-formula shortage that has been slowly intensifying for months is now reaching a state of emergency in the US: over 40 percent of formula is out of stock across the country, according to a report from Datasembly. Caregivers faced with empty shelves are sharing stories of finding price-gouged bottles online and feeding their infants cows’ milk or homemade or watered-down formula. The latter strategies go against doctors’ recommendations, as cow’s milk can slow growth in children under a year old, and homemade or altered formula may lack the right nutritional balance and cause other health problems related to growth and development. Homemade baby formula can also harbor contaminants that may lead to infections, which are sometimes life-threatening. But those warnings pale in comparison to the immediate crisis of trying to feed a hungry child or make a can of formula last for weeks.

To answer the question, “Why not just breastfeed?” — well, that’s not the right option — or an option at all — for some people. Despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed in the first six months, many parents are unable to do so, whether because of lactation or latching issues, medications, or unsupportive work policies or lack of parental leave. Nearly 75 percent of babies in the US receive some form of infant formula by the time they are 6 months old, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So, how did we get to the point of a nationwide shortage? Reports say it’s the result of a collision of issues, including supply-chain and labor-availability disruptions associated with the pandemic. A February recall, which was issued when formula from a Michigan factory gave infants bacterial infections, exacerbated the problem. Other reports indicate that US trade restrictions, inflation, and recent changes in formula demand (as caregivers stocked up during COVID-19 lockdowns) have also contributed to the shortage.

The Biden administration and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are apparently working on the issue, with newly appointed White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters that the FDA is working to maximize formula-production capabilities, speed up the FDA review process, and expand hours of operation for manufacturers, among other actions. The crisis continues, however, leaving parents and caregivers frustrated and panicked.

The shortage has been getting worse for months, but it’s hard to ignore the timing of the current crisis, which comes a week after a Supreme Court brief signaling the court’s readiness to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked. Such a decision, if made official, would put the right to abortion in the hands of the states, 13 of which already have “trigger laws” in place to make abortion illegal as soon as the court allows them to do so. Just yesterday, a bill that would have codified (read: protect) abortion rights into federal law failed to pass through the Senate.

Both crises — the baby-formula shortage and the likely loss of abortion rights — speak to the grave disservice being done to birthing people in the US. We’re talking about the country that holds the “highest rate of maternal mortality in the industrialized world,” according to ProPublica — a country with the dubious distinction of being the only wealthy nation to not provide guaranteed paid parental leave at the national level. A 2020 report from the Commonwealth Fund found that the US ranks worst in maternity care — including a low supply of care providers and postpartum supports — when compared to ten other developed nations. Financial support for and availability of childcare in the US also lags far behind other countries. Notably, most of these figures are even worse for people of color in the US — Black women, for example, are three times more likely to have a maternal death than white women.

It’s the cruelest kind of irony to remove the possibility of abortion while refusing to provide basic maternal, postpartum, and child care for people who give birth. Of course, this isn’t a new observation; the statistics cited above, and many more, make the rounds every time the right to abortion is threatened. It’s just that now, it’s real. As it stands, the federal right to abortion will likely be revoked, which means that the crisis around maternal care will affect even more people, and even more people will be forced to carry children while lacking the most basic resources to take care of them — such as baby formula.

The US has repeatedly failed to provide adequate maternal, postpartum, and child care; now, it’s failing to protect the right to abortion, including for people who may not have the means or ability to care for a child without such support. And while the baby-formula shortage will eventually end, the country’s neglect of birthing people and children is a deeper-seated issue that grows more pressing every day — and shows no signs of ending.

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