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Michele vs. Michelle: The Battle Over Breast-Feeding

As you might have heard, Representative Michele Bachmann on Tuesday attacked First Lady Michelle Obama for trying to impose a “Nanny State.” It seems that Mrs. Obama, as part of her campaign for better nutrition, has been crusading to make it easier for new mothers to breastfeed. In addition, the Internal Revenue Service just decided to classify breast-milk pumps a tax-deductible medical expense.

To Bachmann, these two developments are proof of liberalism run amok. According to Politico, she told a radio interviewer that “For [liberals like Michelle Obama], government is the answer to every problem ... to think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies? You wanna talk about the nanny state, I think you just got a new definition.”

Bachmann’s rants no longer qualify as news and, for the record, I'm not actually sure what effect Mrs. Obama's advocacy had on the IRS. But Bachmann is not the only conservative worked up about the First Lady's campaign for healthy eating and exercise. 

I first noticed the hostility about a year ago, while listening to speakers at rallies against the Obama health care reform plan--which, among other things, mandates that chain restaurants post nutritional information about regular menu item. Last summer, while driving through Western Michigan, I got an earful while listening to the "Laura Ingraham Show," the same show on which Bachmann appeared Tuesday. Since then Sarah Palin has decried the First Lady’s campaign, as has Rush Limbaugh. Michelle Malkin weighed in, too, naming Mrs. Obama one of her “Big Nannies of the Year.”

Bachmann, Limbaugh, Malkin--I know, they’re all pretty disreputable. And prominent Republicans like Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee have, to their credit, defended the First Lady's campaign. But the backlash seems to be reaching a critical mass in the more extreme and unhinged portions of the conservative movement--which, as we all know, exert significant influence over the Republican Party and the national political conversation.

So what is it about the campaign for better nutrition and healthier lifestyles that makes these people so angry? I imagine it’s speeches like these, which the First Lady gave not too long ago:

Nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. More than 60 percent of Americans do not get enough physical activity. … The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that overweight and obesity alone cost American families, businesses, and government approximately $117 billion every year. … The good news, though, is that there are things that each of us can do -- as individuals, as family members, as caregivers, as heads of business, and leaders of government -- to take better care of ourselves, and the people around us. The federal government is doing its part by educating Americans about preventive measures that can save their own lives. …

After talking about Medicare’s coverage of preventative care, the First Lady goes on to extol the virtues of a new administration initiative:

HHS has compiled a list of more than 100 small steps that individuals and families can take to reach the four important health goals outlined in the HealthierUS Initiative. … All of the steps are easy adjustments that can add up to a healthier lifestyle -- like drinking a glass of water before meals, or taking stairs instead of the escalator or the elevator. One of my favorite trips to be active is, "Walk the dog, don't just watch the dog walk." …

And then, finally, there’s the specific focus on childhood obesity and government efforts to combat it:

Our government is working to encourage children and teens to make wise choices about their health. … HHS launched the WeCan! Initiative, which promotes better nutrition for children, and educates parents and caregivers about how to get children to spend less time in front of the TV and computer screen, and more time being physically active. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has partnered with states and schools to improve physical education, and to provide more nutritious foods for children during the school day. …
Today, the Department of Health and Human Services is launching a new effort -- led by the Surgeon General -- to coordinate and expand our government's existing childhood-overweight and -obesity prevention programs. As part of this campaign, the Department's Administration for Children and Families will establish a new National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play. With a $12 million, four-year grant, the Center will help Head Start programs across the country evaluate their playgrounds and their outdoor play spaces, and educate children and families about the importance of healthy food and physical activity. ACF will also provide $10 million to build and upgrade Head Start Playgrounds, making sure children have safe places to play and exercise outdoors.

Oops. The First Lady who gave that speech wasn’t Michelle Obama. It was Laura Bush, speaking to the “National Health and Prevention Summit” in 2007.

I realize that Obama has been more outspoken on these issues and that, partly because of her advocacy, the government's campaign for better nutrition and healthy lifestyles is getting more attention. But if it’s o.k. for Laura Bush to be an advocate for exercise and a good diet, why can't Michelle Obama make the same essential argument? And if it's acceptable for the Bush Administration to back this advocacy with new government programs, why can't the Obama Administration do it, too?

As for the breast pumps, by the way, the IRS already defines tax-deductible medical expenses pretty broadly, encompassing such items as denture adhesives and over-the-counter acne cream. The difference is that a large body of scientific evidence suggests breastfeeding has a significant, positive effect on health. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics support the change. Also, the pumps happen to be very expensive, particularly for low-income families.

According to the New York Times, a study from Harvard Medical School suggested that, if 90 percent of new mothers followed recommended breast-feeding guidelines, the U.S. would save $13 billion a year in health care costs, while saving the lives of 900 infants who would avoid or survive infections. But I know better than to expect the likes of Michele Bachmann to consider the results of respectable academic research, let alone the needs of new mothers trying to juggle work and family.