Lab-Grown Breast Milk: The Intersection of Science, Ethics, and Islamic Jurisprudence

The great theologian Imam Al-Haramayn Al-Juwayni narrated a story from his father in what is a profound lesson in rizq:

Upon receiving the news that his wife was expecting, Imam Al-Haramayn’s father took great care to ensure the money he provided his wife with was only directly earned from halal means. After Imam Al-Haramayn was born, his father continued his diligence in monitoring what the baby consumed. One day, as was typical at that time, his mother was unable to breastfeed him and engaged the services of a wet nurse. This woman was from a family that was not scrupulous in their earnings. When his father found out, he immediately made Imam Al-Haramayn expel the milk.1 

It is permissible for a woman to feed another’s baby. Yet, Imam Al-Haramayn’s father understood the metaphysical impact of halal consumption, such that breastfeeding was a means of not only physical nourishment but spiritual transmission. His actions reflected the understanding that fiqh is a moral code reflecting the Islamic ethical philosophy, something scarcely examined in contemporary bioethical debates concerning alternative forms of nourishment.2 

The latest iteration? Artificial breast milk.

The breast milk versus formula debate is a century old. As formula was presented as an easier alternative to wet nursing in the mid twentieth century, breast feeding rates began to decline. In the 1960s, breastfeeding rates reached an all time low, and quickly a life-saving invention became a lucrative industry as dependency on formula increased.3 4 Generally, health experts agree that breastfeeding has better health outcomes for the mother and infant than formula.5 A mother’s milk tailors itself to the nutritional needs of a baby and this cannot be replicated with current cow or goat milk based formula. Multiple campaigns to aid new mothers in breastfeeding and pushback on complete dependency on formula aided in increasing breastfeeding rates. According to the CDC, in 2019, 83% of children born in the U.S. started out receiving any breast milk, and by 6 months that percentage dropped to 55.8%.6

However, the breastfeeding journey can be excruciating mentally and physically. Even prior to invention of formula, infants did not feed exclusively from their mother’s milk, as breastfeeding was not possible for everyone, and benefitted from wet nurses or animal milk.7 Many mothers face difficulty in getting their babies to latch and not producing enough milk.8 Others cite giving their children formula, because of other issues such as American cultural stigma against feeding outside or lack of accommodations in the workplace. To address these problems, in standard tech start-up fashion, North Carolina-based company Biomilq emerged, aiming to develop cell-cultured milk that can provide both the biological benefits of breast milk, but with the ease of bottle feeding.9

They did this by first soliciting hundreds of volunteers to donate samples of their breast milk and tissue. Biomilq isolated mammary epithelial cells—the cells responsible for milk production in the human body—which were then cultured in a nutrient-rich environment to encourage proliferation and lactation in a similar manner to how they would within a mother’s breasts. This process allows the cells to produce the key components of human milk. The resulting product was harvested and in the future can be processed to ensure safety and suitability for infant nutrition. As of May 2023, Biomilq’s technology has been able to produce many of the macronutrients found in breast milk in a lab, but cannot yet approximate breast milk entirely. Dr. Natalie Shenker, researcher and co-founder of Human Milk Foundation, states that even if Biomilq manages to overcome regulatory hurdles in the next few years, their product will not be able to carry the same benefits as breast milk because it will lack the nutrients that come from a mother’s blood.10

Assuming all of those hurdles are overcome and companies like Biomilq manage to get a product on the shelf, there remain of course problems of permissibility similar to that of lab-grown meat: scrutinizing the materials used in the process, the procedure, etc. But before that, the existence of lab-grown breast milk, and more broadly breast raise a glaring issue: jeopardizing kinship ties.

Recognition of ties through breastfeeding is not exclusive to the shari’a, as the formation of a non-blood relation between a wet nurse and a child has been recognized in various societies and cultures throughout history (for example, in Ancient Rome and Greece, wet nursing was common among upper-class families and relationships between those who had the same wet nurse were recognized, although there were no prohibitions on marriage). Islam, however, is unique in assigning legal and marriage implications to this relationship, where breastfeeding an establishes a “mahram” status, forbidding infants who has consumed breast milk from the same woman from later marrying each other (and their family members) as they are considered milk siblings. There are differences among the madhahib on how many minimum feedings and what quantity of breast milk establishes kinship, but directly feeding from the breast is not a requirement.11 Because of this legal implication, importing alternative breast milk options without forewarning consequences, spell disaster.

If we just import the Western model to the Muslim world, it will not work. Technology is not working in a vacuum.

Professor Mohammed Ghaly

The implications of wet nursing and milk sharing in Islamic jurisprudence highlight the complexity of navigating modern practices such as milk banks in Muslim-majority countries. Thus, it is paramount to understand the sociocultural and religious contexts within which these technologies are implemented. Articles like this, that frame Islamic milk kinship jurisprudence as a hurdle to implementing processes already deemed beneficial and try to discern a “scientific rationale” behind it, implicate the problem of focusing on biological rationales instead of working within our legal norms and spiritual virtues. Why milk kinship exists, if it is because traces of genetic substances linger in breast milk, while an interesting field of research, should remain irrelevant here. Ultimately, milk kinship is a part of divine law, and reflects a special reality of the relationship between a mother and those nourished by her milk. Unlike other relationships, milk kinship can create a tie between any two people and their families, thus functioning as both a spiritual and social tether.

That said, there are some ways to adopt a formal process of accessing donor breast milk by ensuring the traceability of milk donations from donor to recipient. Because milk banks generally have anonymized donors, and may mix multiple donations for one bottle, scholars have stated that donating to such a bank or feeding a child with milk from it is not permissible.12 Lab-grown breast milk poses the same problem. Accordingly, there have been attempts in Turkey and Bangladesh to establish milk banks with strict regulations and identified donors.13 In Malaysia, Dr. Hamizah Ismail set up a milk center where donors are strictly screened prior to giving their milk to premature babies in limited quantities. In Kuwait, a neonatologist took a different approach more reminiscent of traditional wet nursing where each baby was assigned one donor only, and the donor and recipient parents met to establish knowledge of each other’s identities and keep records of how many feedings were given. 

Provided that Muslims developed a viable model, biotechnology’s aid in breast milk alternatives may very well be welcomed. I also invite a reflection on contemporary models being readapted to suit the needs of Muslim families that historically, societies unaffected by atomization and individualism already provided.

Wet nursing was a common practice around the world and for centuries offered a solution for mothers needing help for various social, economic, and health reasons. With the growth of the nuclear family model and advancements in infant nutrition like formula, this practice declined dramatically. The decline was perhaps most sharply felt in societies where the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” was actualized. Wet nursing, alongside many other community-based child-rearing practices, served as a manifestation of this philosophy. New mothers would benefit from the accumulated knowledge of the community’s experienced parents and elders, learning from them and depending on them. Many pregnant and new mothers express feelings of overwhelming isolation that are intensified by societal expectations and the lack of support network.14

The loss of this system is an unfortunate consequence of modernity. While we progress in biotechnological developments especially to address medical problems, I also see lab-grown breast milk as another attempt to reconcile with missing communal bonds. Produced via scientific methods rather than the human body, companies like Biomilq are a fascinating example of how technology is stepping in to fill a gap once occupied by social practices. The artificial approach is not only about offering an alternative food source for infants but also about responding to a wider set of challenges that parents, particularly mothers in atomized societies with exorbitant healthcare costs face. Despite its benefits, lab-grown breast milk would not replace the emotional bonding, spiritual transmission and social ties created by breastfeeding and wet nursing.

Imam Al-Haramayn’s father understood the locus of rizq to be in the fact it physically nourishes and impacts spiritual health. Our challenge is not to simply blend the old with the new, but to be discerning about what we gain and what we potentially lose with every new technological development. This means identifying where current systems fail mothers, seeking essential ‘ilm and working with scholars to understand these issues, scrutinizing the philosophies driving these advancements and assessing their impacts on societal structures.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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  1. ‎طبقات الشافعية، Imam Al-Subki[]
  2. Previously published two articles regarding alternative meats. See Mass Consumption: Islam and Lab-Grown Meat, and Religion and Pork: Issues With Alternative Meats[]
  3. Dylan Scott, How the US got so dependent on baby formula, Vox, Jun 17, 2022,[]
  4. Lane Anderson, Baby Formula: The Story of How America Helped Invent One of the Great Life-Saving Technologies for Babies, Made Parents Dependent On It, Then Let the System Collapse Is…Uniquely American, Early Learning Nation, Sept. 22, 2022,[]
  5. Dieterich, Christine M et al. “Breastfeeding and health outcomes for the mother-infant dyad.” Pediatric clinics of North America vol. 60,1 (2013): 31-48. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2012.09.010[]
  7. Emily E. Stevens et. al., A History of Infant Feeding, Journal of Perinatal Education (2009),[]
  9. Molly Fischer, Biomilq and the Artificial Science of Breast Milk, Mar. 8 2023,[]
  11. Mufti Muhammad ibn Adam, replying to “Is it permissible to express and freeze breast milk for use later on (when the woman is not producing milk anymore) to establish rida’i relationships with the future offspring of sisters-in-law, siblings, cousins etc.?”,[]
  14. Kent-Marvick, Jacqueline et al. “Loneliness in pregnant and postpartum people and parents of children aged 5 years or younger: a scoping review protocol.” Systematic reviews vol. 9,1 213. 14 Sep. 2020, doi:10.1186/s13643-020-01469-5[]

Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics.

2 thoughts on “Lab-Grown Breast Milk: The Intersection of Science, Ethics, and Islamic Jurisprudence

  1. This was a really interesting and informative article to read through. Jazakillah khayr for shedding light on this

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