RIYADH, 7 September 2007 — The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had two mothers: Amina bint Wahab and Halima Al-Saadiah. There was nothing miraculous about this: It was customary at the time for city dwellers in the Arabian Peninsula to send their newborns to live in the healthier desert air among bedouin families to avoid the urban diseases that could claim newborns. Surrogate mothers would breastfeed these children, becoming “milk mothers”.
To this day milk kinship, as it is known, is an accepted Islamic principle. The concept actually predates Islam, and has also appeared in other cultures throughout history.
In modern Saudi Arabia, the concept of milk kinship is being promoted as a way to cement the family bonds of orphans into families, not just through conventional adoption but also by the stronger bond that milk kinship implies.
The Umm Al-Qura Philanthropic Society in Makkah in recent years established a project to pay mothers a sum of money to nurse orphans, a drive that has received accolades in the local media as a way to strengthen the family bond of adopted children with their adoptive families.
An orphan that is nursed by an adoptive mother, for example, can inherit the family name (as well as money or property) as well as the social support of siblings who might otherwise always view the adopted child as not quite a member of the family. This is more than a vague semantic concept: A milk child, for example, cannot legally marry milk siblings. (Stories abound of children who were nursed by popular surrogate mothers in smaller Arab cities being unable to find spouses because they are viewed as equivalent to blood relatives to everyone who nursed from the same woman, which in smaller communities could rule out a large number of potential partners.)
Noura Al-Asheikh, general director of women’s issues at the Ministry of Social Affairs in Makkah, says that they try to promote milk kinship as part of their program to find families for orphaned children.
“We at the ministry try to study the possibility of finding a nursing mother in the hosting family to breastfeed the child to ensure its legal position in that family,” she said.
Establishing milk kinship requires the consent of the head of the adopting household, and Al-Asheikh says it is important to establish an understanding of the terms of milk kinship: That the adopted child is no longer considered adopted in the eyes of the law but rather the equivalent of a blood relative.
She also says that encouraging adopted mothers to nurse is preferable to finding nursing mothers who aren’t interested in adopting the children. Surrogate milk mothers are often paid up to SR3,000 for each child in their care, and a fee paid by the biological parents at the end of the nursing period. However, in the case of orphaned children, professional surrogate mothers would have no additional incentive or desire to continue a relationship with the child as it grows up.
“Mothers that adopt provide the child with a better life than women who simply get paid to nurse,” she said. “Paying women (to be milk mothers) should be a last resort,” she added, though she also said that mothers that choose to adopt but do not want to nurse could obviously hire their own surrogate if they choose to. Many Saudi families do this with their own biological children anyway.
Al-Asheikh underscored the importance of properly screening women who nurse to make sure they are healthy and do not pose risk to the children. Historically speaking, people of the Arabian Peninsula often sought out bedouin surrogates because of the belief that the bedouin lifestyle resulted in healthier and stronger people. The use of Bedouin surrogates was preferred because of the idea that the surrogate mother’s milk would pass on these attributes to the children.
“I still have deep concerns as to the way the project would be regulated,” said Al-Asheikh, citing the importance of ensuring the commitment of the adopted mother, even if the child develops physical impairments later on. Al-Asheikh stressed the importance of forming and applying strong regulations by the ministry to ensure that no misconduct happens that could lead to problems later on.
“I was faced with a case where a woman took a baby in, and after he grew up, she discovered he has a retardation, but she refused to give him up,” she said. “To her the child was like her own, and she would not have given him up. That is the type of adoptive parent the organization is looking for.”