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Who are ‘we’ to speak of benefits and harms? And to whom do we speak? A (sympathetic) response to Woollard on breast feeding and language
  1. Ben Saunders
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ben Saunders, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK; b.m.saunders{at}


In a recent article, Fiona Woollard draws attention to a number of problems, both theoretical and pragmatic, with current discourse around infant feeding. References both to the ‘benefits of breastfeeding’ and ‘harms of formula’ are problematic, since there is no obvious baseline of comparison against which to make these evaluations. Further, she highlights the pragmatic consequences of these linguistic choices. Saying that formula feeding harms babies, for instance, is likely to exacerbate feelings of guilt and shame felt by many mothers who use formula, for various reasons. Since I agree with much that Woollard says, this response is mostly sympathetic, but I wish to draw attention to one point that is largely missing from her analysis. The pragmatic effect of an utterance depends significantly on who is speaking, to whom, and in what context. Thus, we might differentiate between what it is appropriate to say in a professional context, such as an academic journal, from what one might say in a policy document or to a new mother. While we should always be careful about the language that we use, we need not assume that the same language is appropriate in all contexts nor that equal care is always required.

  • newborns and minors
  • public health ethics
  • women

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  • Contributors BS is solely responsible for conceiving, writing and reviewing the manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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