Reproductive Health

Breastfeeding in Public Is a Basic Civil Right

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

As nursing mothers celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, a women's rights attorney says more states need to pass laws specifically protecting this natural practice that benefits infants, mothers and thus the community.



Woman breastfeeding her child

LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--Exposed breasts. They are all over the media: in movies, magazines, even television. But put a nursing infant anywhere near those breasts and suddenly some people are offended.

Just last month the California Women's Law Center staged a nurse-in with more than 70 breastfeeding mothers at the Santa Monica Place Mall after a mall security guard told a woman she was being "indecent" while nursing her infant in the food court.

In December, a woman nursing in a restaurant at a Las Vegas casino was told that she would need to "go somewhere more private." And in March, a woman was denied entrance to a public zoo in Orange County, Calif., because she intended to breastfeed on a bench inside the zoo and the attendant feared that "children might see."

In June 2001, a woman in San Mateo, Calif., was asked to stop breastfeeding at a public pool. She was told that her actions violated public health codes and constituted indecent exposure and nudity. Pool staff later informed her that they were afraid her breast milk "might infect the pool water."

What many people do not know is that breastfeeding in public is legal in every state. A mother does not need to "cover up" or go somewhere more private. More than half of states have laws specifically protecting this right, but even in those that do not, it is still legal to breastfeed in public.

Breastfeeding laws fall generally into two categories. Some states simply exclude breastfeeding in public from the state's criminal laws regarding indecent exposure or obscenity, so that a woman cannot be charged criminally for nursing in public. In these states, a woman who is harassed for breastfeeding in public can sue under other laws, such as those prohibiting sex discrimination in places of public accommodation.

Other states, such as New York and California, offer stronger protection in the form of civil statutes protecting a woman's right to breastfeed in public. Under these laws, mothers may sue for civil rights violations if they are prevented from breastfeeding in public. Federal law also protects nursing mothers, although it only ensures them the right to breastfeed in public if they are on federal property.

Recognizing that discrimination against nursing mothers is a national issue with implications for our country's health, the American Medical Association in May adopted a resolution urging states to pass legislation protecting a mother's right to breastfeed in public. But any legislation passed should not merely make nursing in public an exception to a state's obscenity or indecent exposure laws, but should guarantee breastfeeding as a civil right.

Breastfeeding Adds to Mothers and Infants Health

When someone asks a woman to cover-up during breastfeeding or move to someplace more private, it is often because this person is sexualizing the act of breastfeeding rather than viewing it as a natural, nurturing act. What people do not realize is that many infants cannot eat while covered up and a nursing mother should not be made to feel embarrassed for feeding her child.

Too many women have been made to feel this way, including one woman who was asked to stop breastfeeding in the children's section of a Borders Books and Music store in Glendale, Calif. In 1999, the California Women's Law Center sued Borders on behalf of this nursing mother. Borders settled and agreed to educate its employees about the right to breastfeed in public.

Even after the Borders case, many people continue to harass breastfeeding mothers. Unfortunately, in states with no laws about breastfeeding in public, individual courts will determine the extent of a nursing mother's right.

For example, in Derungs v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., a district court in Ohio held that discrimination against breastfeeding women is not sex discrimination in violation of Ohio's public accommodation laws. Ohio currently has no law protecting a woman's right to breastfeed in public and, so while a woman still has the right to do so, it is not illegal for someone to harass her for doing so.

Breastfeeding Should Be Encouraged, Not Hidden

Too often forgotten in discussions about the right to breastfeed in public is the reason women choose to breastfeed. In addition to strengthening the bond between mothers and their babies, breastfeeding offers significant health benefits for the child. Babies who are breastfed have lower rates of meningitis, childhood leukemia and other cancers, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, bacterial and viral infections, diarrheal illnesses, allergies and obesity. For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months.

Moreover, breastfeeding offers significant health benefits to nursing mothers, including reduced risks of breast and other types of cancers, as well as osteoporosis.

As a society, we must support mothers who are contributing to the well being of our nation by breastfeeding. Asking a breastfeeding mother to nurse in a bathroom or cover herself up is an unnecessary barrier to breastfeeding and the mere fear of such intervention causes many mothers to either never begin breastfeeding or to prematurely wean their infants.

The California Women's Law Center is committed to protecting a mother's right to breastfeed in public. Our hope is that through education and legislation, nursing mothers will be treated with respect and more women will be encouraged to engage in this very nurturing act.

Nancy M. Solomon is the senior staff attorney at the California Women's Law Center, which works to secure justice for women and girls by ensuring, through systemic change, that life opportunities for women and girls are free from unjust social, economic and political constraints. 

For more information:

California Women's Law Center:
http://www.cwlc.org/

La Leche League International:
http://www.lalecheleague.org

Breastfeeding Taskforce of Greater Los Angeles:
http://www.breastfeedingtaskforla.org/

 
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