Updated 4:35 p.m.
A Muslim legal expert on Thursday signed a religious ruling that will allow Muslim families in Minnesota to use donor breast milk for their vulnerable babies while in intensive care.
The religious decree, forged over the past few months in discussions between Minnesota health systems and Islamic faith leaders, is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.
Health providers in the state had noticed Muslim mothers would refuse donor breast milk due to concerns over Islamic law. Supporters say the clarity from the new decree, or fatwa, will save lives.
“As imams and Muslim scholars, we discussed the issue and we brought the fatwa,” Imam Mohamed Mahad of Nurul-Iman Mosque in Minneapolis told reporters of the discussions that led to Thursday’s decree. “This is OK, no problem, because it’s life-saving and Islam emphasizes very well this issue, to save all the human lives.”
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Studies show that human breast milk can be life-saving for premature and critically ill babies. It holds nutrition but also possesses immune boosting properties that greatly decrease infant mortality rates in hospital neonatal intensive care units.
Many NICUs have made it standard practice to use pasteurized donor milk when a mother’s milk is unavailable. However, because donor milk in the U.S. is anonymous, Muslim families were concerned about having an unknown relationship that could result in religiously incestuous relationships in the future.
“Muslim families would not accept it, due to their spiritual beliefs, even when it was available, and medically advised by their doctors,” Linda Dech, executive director of Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies, said of donated breast milk.
“We wanted to see what we could do to ensure these infants have the same access to best practices that prevents serious illness that other infants receive,” she added.
In the Islamic faith, a person who breastfeeds a baby develops a kinship with that baby. Children’s Minnesota neonatologist Dr. Leah Jordan found that her Muslim patients would often refuse donor breast milk because they were concerned about developing unknown relationships.
For pregnant people who delivered prematurely and had babies needing immediate intensive care, the concerns bordered on crisis.
“Families, when they have this concern, have expressed that they really want guidance from their imam, from their local community and from their religion before they choose to use donor breast milk,” said Jordan, who helped start the conversations that led to Thursday’s formal decree. “They need that question to be answered.”
Children’s Minnesota, M Health Fairview, Brighter Health, the Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies and the Minnesota Breastfeeding Coalition were the groups that helped build bridges to local imams on the issue.
“Like most of our moms that deliver early, they have trouble securing that milk,” said Dr. Nancy Fahim, a neonatal specialist at M Health Fairview in Minneapolis. “They want the best for their babies, but they’re wanting to stay in connection with their religion. So we tried to look for that, how to solve that problem.”
Thursday’s formal signing of the decree was met with applause and relief. Nurses and doctors present at the signing called it a vital step forward.
Munira Maalimisaq, a nurse practitioner and CEO of Brighter Health, an organization that specializes in cultural sensitive health care, recalled a patient who died recently following premature childbirth, leaving her grieving family struggling to find answers on how to nurse the 29-week old baby.
She was able to tell the family the decree was about to be signed and they agreed to accept donor breast milk for the baby. “And to me that means so much because that we gave someone a chance. So yeah, definitely is going to make a big impact.”