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A very lucrative liquid: the emerging trade in human milk as a form of reproductive exploitation and violence against women

Sarah Louise Steele (Department of Politics and International Studies, School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK and Intellectual Forum, Jesus College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)
Eduardo E. Hernandez-Salazar (Intellectual Forum, Jesus College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)

International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare

ISSN: 2056-4902

Article publication date: 10 February 2020

Issue publication date: 30 April 2020




An emerging market in human milk exists for both nutritional and biomedical research purposes. This commercialisation of human milk, however, raises issues about the exploitation and violence against women.


This paper explores the framing of the issues as one of human rights, and whether the shifting of gender issues away from gender-specific spaces in legal and ethical debates, makes their ethical consideration and the tangible consequences from these considerations, into a potential further sources of exploitation and other forms of violence against women.


The authors find the commoditisation of human milk as a nutritional product deprives women from the centrality of their roles and, therefore, from the upholding of women rights and the adequate prevention of violence against women. They identify an emerging space where trafficking in women and girls can occur for their milk as part of a broader set of practices of reproductive exploitation. They also identify that existing legal, ethical and research discussions often frame labour or organ trafficking as the appropriate framework but find this inadequate to address the inherently gendered aspect of reproductive exploitation. The current response makes trafficking in women for their milk a potential practice while concealing the structural inequalities that underpin women’s experiences as the buyers and sellers of human milk.

Practical implications

The regulation of human milk sale should therefore move from a public health paradigm focused on safety to one of health and women’s rights, whereas human trafficking laws around the world should explicitly address reproductive exploitation.


Emerging forms of exploitation, such as human milk sale remain underdiscussed alongside other more prominent forms of reproductive exploitation, such as surrogacy. The authors call for explicit consideration of the emerging trade as its burdens fall exclusively on women and existing frameworks for addressing exploitation often overlook these emerging practices and the structural inequalities faced by women that drive these trades.



Steele, S.L. and Hernandez-Salazar, E.E. (2018), "A very lucrative liquid: the emerging trade in human milk as a form of reproductive exploitation and violence against women", International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 171-183.



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