From The “Things I’d Prefer Not To Think About” Files: The Daughter’s Breast Milk

Georgia on the right, her two patrons on the left…

An ABC News story from 2009 turned up on my ethics radar.

Tim Browne, a retired teacher and musician from Wiltshire, England, was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was operated on a week before his daughter’s wedding, but  the cancer had spread to his liver and lymph nodes. Doctors said it was terminal.

While he was undergoing chemotherapy, his daughter suggested an unconventional treatment: her breast milk. She had seen a TV report about an American man who had  made a miraculous recovery from prostate cancer by drinking it. Soon Tim was having his morning cereal with daughter Georgia’s milk.

Georgia was nursing her 8-month-old son Monty and offered to set aside a few ounces of milk every day for Browne. Browne started calling Monty his “milk brother.” “If I have a lactating daughter, why not take advantage of her? As long as Monty didn’t mind,” Browne said.

There’s no evidence that breast milk really does treat cancer, but doctors said that as long as Browne believed it did, the succor might have a genuine placebo effect.

What do we properly call a father consuming his daughter’s breast milk? Is that too close to incest for comfort?Does it matter if it’s close, as long as it isn’t quite?

Utilitarian principles would clearly conclude that if the practice was necessary to save the father’s life, any moral objections would have to fall by the wayside, correct? Well, what if he just likes the taste? Then would drinking his child’s breast milk be unethical, if she didn’t mind (and Monty, of course)?

Let’s say this is quasi-incest. Does the taboo against incest make any sense when there is no danger of procreation, the father and daughter aren’t having sexual intercourse, and both are truly consenting adults? Where’s the harm? If the activity is unethical, there has to be some harm, somehow, somewhere. Is it a slippery slope? Does consuming breast milk constitute a significant enough breach of socially necessary barriers between father-daughter intimacy that we can confidently label it wrongful?

If drinking a daughter’s breast milk is OK morally and ethically, would Dad getting the beverage right from the source–that is, well, you know-–be morally or ethically objectionable while having it pumped out first would not?

What would Kant say (other than, “Ew!”)? If drinking one’s daughter’s breast milk became a health craze, would that be social problem?

Who sent me this story anyway?

[More breast-feeding ethics here]

28 thoughts on “From The “Things I’d Prefer Not To Think About” Files: The Daughter’s Breast Milk

    • I agree. Really though, if they’re so granola that they think breast milk is going to cure cancer, the doctor probably could have talked Grandpa into some essential oils or colloidal silver or something. The results would be the same.

  1. I can see where Daughter got the idea – it’s not an uncommon misconception. Breast milk from a lactating mom has certain immunizing properties — to chicken pox, for instance. If the mother had had chicken pox at some time and thus developed immunity to it, she would carry that immunity, temporarily, to her child (which would still need vaccinations and ” boosters”. She’s been immunizing the baby with her enzymes and proteins since before birth. If cancer worked the same way, and Daughter had been “cured” of a cancer (no such thing, technically), then . . . . but that’s not the way it works.

    Here’s all there is. “There is some evidence that a protein-lipid in breast milk known as HAMLET might have potential uses in treating cancer, but doctors warn that the results used lab models and do not translate to human consumption of breast milk.” People like to skip over the words “warn,” “some,” “might,” “potential,” and “do not translate to” and fast-forward to the “Why Not” in their heads. This is currently under clinical research for cancer treatments, like literally hundreds of other lines going on simultaneously. It is in the trial stage. “Trial stage” means that researchers can’t know the level of benefits – if any – at this point.

    If Daughter’s milk is in the cancer-treatment pipeline, we haven’t come abreast of it yet. In other words: placebo is as good a word as any.

  2. I don’t consider it incest. There’s nothing sexual about it. I think it’s foolish…I mean, if he truly believes it works, then he could consume any number of products, some of them harmful, if the placebo effect were considered an appropriate benefit. But, no, not incest. Just icky.

    • I have to agree with AM. Sure there is a kind of Ick factor but from a purely technical standpoint how is it different than a daughter to father blood transfusion.

      We just passed right to try legislation for the terminally ill. Because there is a 99.999 % chance that the treatment wont work does that justify saying no when there is zero harm or cost to another; I say go for it. What have they got to lose?

      • “They” probably don’t have anything to lose. If that was where it ended, no problem. But it doesn’t end there – and articles like this don’t help. There are already places taking donations of breast milk to sell to any buyer. It isn’t openly advertised as a cancer “cure” or a cure for anything else — like the peach pits and all the other marketing ploys that have been out there for decades now. Patients will bankrupt themselves and their families, worse, they will stop taking the medicine and/or the treatments for whatever they have that has been keeping them alive. Not the best thing? Maybe not, but until something better comes along, yes, surgery, chemo and radiation are known solutions to one extent or another, including full remissions. There is no way to control the sale of breast milk. [Can you hear the prog women roar: “get your laws off my body!!!” It’s a horror.

        Please read this and then see if patients have anything “to lose.”: This is a partial list of what is transmitted in breast milk. :
        Lyme disease,
        herpes simplex,
        Hepatitis A and B,
        and more.
        Is this what you want to give to someone whose immune system is already compromised by cancer? Think of where the milk is coming from (who needs money most? who doesn’t give a damn what they’re transmitting? who is going to pay for all the tests of the above to make sure none of them are present and that genetic problems cannot be passed along? Bias isn’t the only thing that makes you stupid. Fear and false hope will do it too.

        There may be a breakthrough any day now – but it’s not today.

  3. I think this is “ick” not “ethic”. First, I don’t think this is incestuous. There is no intercourse, or even inappropriate contact going on. Pumping milk is about as sexual as a warthog is musical, entirely unrelated. Most lactating mothers I know, including myself, pump milk because there will exist a few times during our child’s first year when we will not be present and they need to eat, even if it is only for a dental appointment or similar. The fact that pumping also has positive effects on milk supply is another reason for doing so. If we have excess milk, pumping can help with the pain. What this means is that it can be easy (and completely non-sexual) to have excess breast milk in the freezer for some women.

    Second, would there be a problem of blood donation from your daughter for health? Breast milk is designed for human (in a special manner) consumption.

    Third , there are other uses for breast milk, good or bad, than feeding your own child, that I do not think are unethical. Some are more icky than others of course. First, it is recommended that mothers use breast milk on their nipples (along with various baby-safe nipple creams) to reduce inflammation, tenderness, bruising, cracked nipples, and bleeding, the usual discomforts of breastfeeding. This comes from reliable sources, like OB-GYNs and Pediatricians. Another use is to smear the milk on the babies acne and cradle cap, again from various reliable medical professionals including lactation consultants and OB-nurses. Next down the line, still from the reliable advice, is to donate the milk to a milk bank where preemies and super-preemies can get breast milk when their mothers are incapable of producing and the babies stomachs are incapable of handling formula. Milk banks, however, are very picky about the milk they receive, and most women cannot make the stringent requirements (my pediatrician calls some of those requirements stupid and self defeating). The next step is to find a mom who needs the milk for her baby but cannot, usually due to the lack of adequate milk in banks, and donate privately. As very few diseases pass through breast milk, the main concern with private donation is that a woman could be taking off label medication. Mothers who go this route do take a risk, though a fairly small one. This is now a little more outside the reliable medical advice.

    Finally, we reach the icky stuff. There is a market for breast milk. Some cancer-sufferers, like this man, and many bodybuilders pay top dollar for breastmilk. Breast milk is the new bulking elixir and a woman who is willing to feed her child formula and pump her milk for bodybuilders can make upwards of $20,000 in a year. (This, I think, borders at least on unethical, as the child would receive superior nutrition from the breast milk and the woman is choosing an inferior choice for her child In return for money.) A woman with excess milk can sell an ounce for $1-$5. This man is receiving the liquid gold for free, whereas others pay premium for this.

    So as a final analysis, it is standard practice and not at all sexual to have extra breast milk on hand. Breast milk is intended for human consumption and the woman’s child is not being deprived as this is from the excess. Finally, the intent is to improve the father’s health. Whether or not this is effective, it is not harmful. Therefore any adverse reaction to this is in the realm of ick, not ethics. As a final note, if he were taking it straight “from the tap”, if you will, that would be unethical, as we have crossed a line into a more sexual territory.

  4. First of all, eff you and your judgement.
    How dare you have any opinion of
    a family willing to try whatever necessary to save a father, husband, and grandfather – especially since they aren’t hurting anyone, least of all you. Secondly, there absolutely IS evidence that a chemical produced ONLY by lactating mothers, and present in breast milk has cancer fighting properties. Here’s an article by an actual journalist for reference.

    Happy reading, jerk.

    • 1. Stay classy, there, Danielle.

      2. I’m an ethicist. That means my job is to analyze such questions. Try to keep up. You, liek anyone else, can challenge my analysis, as long as you do it politely and intelligently. Clearly, you can’t.

      3. I “dare” to have an opinion because it’s an informed opinion, unlike, say, yours, which is pure emotion and has the thought behind it of the typical 5th grader. But even you can dare to have an opinion, even a lazy one. Dare! Dare!

      4. Not that I would expect you to actually know what you are talking about before shooting off on an ethics blog, but MORALITY vs. ethics, —see that in the tags?—was part of the topic of the post. Lots and lots of conduct that we call “immoral” doesn’t hurt anyone. Which part of the statement “If the activity is unethical, there has to be some harm, somehow, somewhere” did you fail to read, understand, or process?

      Throwing insults around when you’re the one screwing up is a bad look.

      5. Oh! You found an article from a British tabloid that supports the breast milk theory? Well, that settles it, then!

      Usually a rude, dumb, comment like yours would never make it up, but yours deserved special attention. You will not get a second chance, so don’t try.

  5. Here is a relevant question. . . How long after the the diagnosis did he receive the operation? In short, did his terminal condition result from significant delays resulting from their single payer system.

  6. I am a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit. We deal with breast milk all day long. I was taken aback by your consideration that this is, in any way, incestuous. I think that may have more to do with they fact that breastmilk comes from breasts. Which, perhaps you have sexualized to an extreme. If the father was nursing from his daughter that would be in question. She is merely pumping milk and leaving it in a container for him. We drink milk pumped from other species, so why are we so freaked out about human expressed breast milk? Is it going to cure his cancer? It’s very doubtful but there is clear evidence that breastmilk has a plethora of health benefits. I explain this over and over again to families that mom’s breast milk is the ideal nutrition for her infant, followed by donor breast milk because it is species specific, followed by formula, which is essentially expressed breast milk from another species. Also, I have all the empathy for a family struggling with a cancer diagnosis. I think it lacks compassion and consideration of their circumstance to consider an incestuous label. It certainly won’t cause any harm for him to consume breast milk.

    • 1. “It certainly won’t cause any harm for him to consume breast milk.” Which is what I wrote as well.
      2. Uh-uh—you have to deal with the hypotheticals in the article if you are going to dismiss the incest issues out of hand. You just ignored them. Go down the slippery slope.

      I dare you.

    • Evidently our ethisist is unaware that older, American white males sexualizing the female body is a current concern. This doesn’t even come close to incestuous relationship.

      Feel free to moderate me. I’m sure that I’m highly offensive by not agreeing with you.

      • NOTICE: Danielle R is banned.

        Her last comment: “Evidently our ethisist is unaware that older, American white males sexualizing the female body is a current concern. This doesn’t even come close to incestuous relationship. Feel free to moderate me. I’m sure that I’m highly offensive by not agreeing with you.”

        My answer:

        Nope, you’re offensive by being a rude, arrogant jerk on a blog where you’re a guest, and by not offering any actual arguments, just snotty assertions. I always feel free to moderate anyone, it being my site, and I always ban commenters who dare me to.
        Bye. You’re banned. Don’t come back.

  7. If incest is a sexual relationship between family, how is drinking milk even tied into that?
    So if you drink cow or goat’s milk you are committing beastiality?
    You are sexualized in your thoughts by breastfeeding.
    Then mothers breastfeeding their children are having incest relationships with them, by your way of sexualized thinking.
    It is hard to take you even seriously as a writer when you turn a medical article into a weird relationship. The woman wanted to help her father over come cancer. She didn’t want to have sex with him. Now your writings will be known more for your mental illness than, if human breast milk even effects cancer growth or cures it, when consumed. Nice job.

    • A father having his daughter pump milk from her breasts so he can have it with his cereal is by definition a weird relationship. I asked questions…you ignored most of them, and then resorted to name-calling.

      Obviously you lack the intellectual capacity to participate here, and the open-mindedness to consider aspects of issues that you lack the curiosity, integrity or courage to give thought to.

  8. This post could hardly be complete with out, at least, an oblique reference to the heart-breaking, yet simultaneously heart-warming, ending to The Grapes of Wrath.

    So, there it is.


  9. As the daughter of this man and the sister of this woman, I just wanted to stress this article is more than a decade old. My father was given 6 months – 2 years with his terminal diagnosis, he lived for 2 and a half years, dying in 2009. Who knows if the breast milk helped, and yes, he would have tried other alternative therapies too. Why not? There’s no harm right? I’ll stress, he drank expressed milk from a bottle in the fridge that my sister would put there. This might have raised some ethical streams of thought for you all, but honestly, isn’t the thought of drinking cows milk just as weird when we really think about it….?!

    • I’m so sorry that your family had to go through this trauma but pleased to hear you were given that extra time together.

      I cannot understand why so many struggle with the concept of human milk and yet have no problem consuming the breast milk of other species.

      It seems hypocritical to me that other comments were deemed to be lacking intellect or open-mindedness given the childish writing style of this post. I found it to be full of narrow-minded, opinionated, prejudiced and judgemental statements. Just my opinion of course and we should all be entitled to have one.

      • I cannot understand why so many struggle with the concept of human milk and yet have no problem consuming the breast milk of other species.

        You drink what you wish. Don’t ask me to approve of it, and I will ask you to do the same.

        It seems hypocritical to me that other comments were deemed to be lacking intellect or open-mindedness given the childish writing style of this post. I found it to be full of narrow-minded, opinionated, prejudiced and judgemental statements.

        So you come on a blog without reading commenting policies, and post that childish screed? Do you defecate on the baby grand piano at dinner parties, or is this just something you do online?


        Just my opinion of course and we should all be entitled to have one.

        Sure. Yours is just morally superior to everyone else’s. You just said so yourself.

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