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Tax Policy and Breastfeeding Mothers

2 min readBy: Richard Morrison

This week the editors of Time magazine stirred up an Internet-wide controversy with a cover photo of mother/blogger Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeing her 4 year old son. The accompanying article, which discusses the virtues of “attachment parenting,” created an avalanche of reaction, commentary, and satire, everywhere from Fox News to the the Huffington Post.

It was in the latter outlet that columnist Lisa Belkin characterized the debate over breastfeeding as one that was about “nutrition, and workplace policy, and government responsibility, and gender relationships.” At first it seemed odd that a personal parenting decision like what to feed young children should be about “government responsibility,” but it turns out that both state and federal governmental agencies are no strangers to the issue.

It was only last year, for example, that the Internal Revenue Service, bowing to lobbying from groups such as the U.S. Lactation Consultant Association, issued new rules that reclassified breast pumping supplies as “medical devices” rather than merely “feeding devices.”

The Internal Revenue Service announced today that you can use pre-taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. flexible spending account money to buy a breast pump and related lactation supplies, reversing a stingy position. After all, other kinds of medical equipment, like crutches and hearing aid batteries qualify for the tax break.

It’s good news for working moms. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocated for the change in a letter to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman last year, the old policy left “millions of working mothers without the financial assistance to obtain a breast pump and continue nursing their children.” That was a problem because nursing provides numerous health benefits to mother and child, the letter said.

Decisions like this, of course, are a natural outgrowth of a tax code that attemps to micromanage behaviors and purchasing decisions in every aspect of life. As long as the government continues deciding which parenting decisions qualify for special tax treatment, the public policy process will be pulled into debates that in most times and places are considered private family matters.