Professional Wet Nurses Spark Outrage in China

June 28, 2006

Editor’s Note: Thanks for the tip, Emilie!

Speaking of the privileged, China is grappling with its own ethical dilemmas now that it has a growing affluent class. Apparently, a growing business there is professional wet nurses who get paid to breastfeed wealthier women’s children.

Some of these wet nurses, who often come from poor rural areas in China, are lured from even other jobs for the paycheck their breasts bring. Also, there is undeniably a market for breast milk to be exploited:

China has been dogged by a number of health scares regarding bogus baby milk formula. In 2004, at least 13 babies died from malnutrition in the country’s impoverished eastern province of Anhui after being fed fake baby milk.

But the right of a woman to sell her breast milk, an occupation in China, that like the West, disappeared decades ago, has sparked heated debate, the Beijing News said.

Opponents of the practice say these women are forced from nursing their own children to instead feed the appetites of their affluent customers.

Yue Jiangmei, a 22-year-old mother from China’s northern Hebei province, left her baby with a relative to work in Wenzhou, a city in the booming eastern province of Zhejiang, the Beijing News said.

“My daughter was 7 months old and able to be nourished with baby food and milk powder,” the paper quoted Yue as saying.

She responded to an advertisement offering five times her salary, or about 4,000 yuan ($500) a month, to work as a wet nurse for a Wenzhou family.

This is a tough one. Like the nanny debate, it opens the door to exploiting low-income and immigrant women. On the other hand, it is hard to argue that the practice is unethical when women here are allowed to hire and be surrogate mothers, sell their eggs, buy sperm, obtain the “services” or work at an escort service, frequent or work at a strip club, or show off their breasts at Hooters. Who am I to judge?

Of course, the ideal situation is that there would be more work choices for women like Yue. But in a country of 1.2 billion people and a growing capitalist society, I have a feeling it will be hard to regulate this industry along with many questionable others.