December 3, 2010 12:04 pm

Surrogate mom trying to sell breast milk online welcomes spotlight on issue

Surrogate mom Becca Shears doesn’t know why her ads to give away or sell her breast milk were pulled from Craigslist and Kijiji, but she welcomes the media controversy that has ensued.

Shears, already a mother of two who is pregnant with twin girls due in January, started looking for a family in need of her milk on Craigslist in October, because she only plans to feed the twins for their first month. After that, she explained, their adoptive mother will take them out of province, but she will be able to keep pumping, sterilizing and freezing her milk for other infants in need for months.

“I would love to find somebody that wants my milk, that kinda wants to get to know us,” she told The Province Thursday. “There’s no way for me to find someone. I don’t know anyone that has a newborn baby.”

Despite the sale of human milk being legal in Canada, Craigslist flagged and deleted her free listings within minutes of her posting them, for reasons unknown. The site did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Province.

Reporters started phoning Shears this week after she reposted her ad on Kijiji, this time advertising her milk for $1.50 an ounce. Kijiji pulled Shears’ ad on Wednesday, but the recreational therapist says she only put a price on her milk because Kijiji requires one.

“[Making a profit] wasn’t the intent,” she said. “I thought maybe a dollar figure makes it seem more valuable to someone, so they know I’m not messing around.”

Shears always knew about the B.C. Women’s Milk Bank, which is a vital resource at B.C. Women’s Hospital in Vancouver for about 1,700 premature and sick babies each year. In most cases, it is a lifeline for babies whose mothers either can’t produce enough milk or are sick themselves. Her confusion began, she said, when she phoned the bank to ask about donating and was told she would have to drop it off in Vancouver – a prohibitively long and expensive journey from Langley.

“I had no information about the other drop-off points until [Wednesday],” she said.

As she found out after her story was published in numerous papers and aired on news channels this week, the Women’s Milk Bank does have drop-off points around the Lower Mainland (see below), including one closer to her home, in Abbotsford.

But Frances Jones, program co-ordinator for the B.C. Women’s Milk Bank, said willing donors like Shears are in high demand in B.C., and more outreach is needed to encourage and educate them about milk donation.

All milk donated to the milk bank is pasteurized and rigorously screened for diseases and contamination, she explained. But by the time all the babies in neonatal care are fed, there is little milk left to dispense to others who need it.

“I suspect the number of babies in need [of milk] is way, way higher than the number we serve, because we don’t encourage people to call us because we don’t have a lot of milk,” Jones said. “Obviously we rely on our wonderful, generous donors, but we do run into times when our freezers are bare, particularly around the holidays.”

Jones, echoing warnings issued by Health Canada, cautioned parents against buying milk or meeting donors on the Internet because human milk can carry a variety of bacteria and viruses, as well as pharmaceutical contamination.

“The bottom line is it’s up to the mother, but if you’re buying from a complete stranger, it could be more risky,” she said.

Shears, whose husband Kyle is an organic gardener, said she eats a nearly all-organic diet, sticks to a strict vitamin regimen, and does not smoke, drink or do drugs. And she shares Jones’s concerns about desperate parents buying milk on the Internet.

“Women need to know that if they’re giving milk to their baby that hasn’t been screened for the HIVs, syphilis, and hepatitis B and C, they are putting their babies at risk,” she said.

“I think what’s good about [my ads being pulled from Craigslist and Kijiji] is that it has got the conversation going … There are women on these websites all over the province that are sharing their milk, and it’s not necessarily regulated as safely as it is by the milk bank.”

She is still looking for someone with whom she can develop a relationship and donate her milk to directly. Otherwise, she will donate to the Women’s Milk Bank, she said.

“¢ For information about breastfeeding and the B.C. Women’s Milk Bank, visit www.bcwomens.ca. The milk bank has drop-off depots at hospitals throughout the province, including Surrey, Abbotsford, Mission, Chilliwack and Agassiz, and is also developing depots in North Vancouver and on Vancouver Island.

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