Public Breastfeeding Laws
The baby is vehemently squirming. You can tell that if he doesn’t eat in the next minute or so, he’s going to get really loud and cause a scene in front of all the parents at your neighborhood park.
No binkie could stave it off.
Meanwhile your older daughter is busy having a blast on the swings. If you try to leave now, you’ll wind up with two screaming kids and a throbbing headache. So, with all the discretion you can muster, you undo your bra and clandestinely breastfeed your baby. Draping a cloth over his head, you attempt to appear nonchalant.
Then you spy a uniformed police officer walking in your direction. You hold your breath and wonder if you’re in store for a stern talking to, a threat of arrest or a polite nod. Visions of handcuffs enter your head. (“Sorry sweetie, Mommy’s got to go now, she’s being arrested for indecent exposure by this nice policeman . . .”)
Women who choose to nurse their babies in public often fear that they’re going to be asked to leave or even arrested. But federal and state lawmakers are attempting to make it clear that women don’t have to worry about balancing handcuffs and nursing bras.
Bills are being considered at the state and national levels to not only make it clear that it’s legal to nurse a child in public and that women who do so can’t be made to hide in dark rooms, but to establish breastfeeding as a civil right and to qualify breastfeeding equipment, like breast pumps, as tax deductible.
While Congress in 1999 passed a law allowing nursing on federal property, the U.S. surgeon general in October 2000 officially made it national policy to promote breastfeeding. Nearly 40 states around the country have passed legislation declaring it legal to nurse in public, and sometimes exempting breastfeeding moms from jury duty, according to the La Leche League (LLL), an organization which promotes breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding advocates and medical experts – all attempting to boost what they see as paltry U.S. breastfeeding rates – have praised efforts to put an official stamp of approval on nursing. A full-fledged, multi-media promotional campaign to encourage nursing during World Breastfeeding Week (August 1-7) is being prepared to blanket TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards and the Internet. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is helping coordinate the campaign which officials hope will “empower women to exclusively breastfeed for six months,” according to an HHS press release.
“We’re not as progressive as we think we are,” said Massachusetts State Senator Susan Fargo, who filed a bill in her state legislature to exempt breastfeeding from obscenity laws, excuse nursing women from jury duty and prohibit discrimination against women who breastfeed, including when they need to express milk at work.
After hearing from constituents who have said they’ve encountered flack while nursing their babies in public venues, Fargo said she felt compelled to file the legislation, even though the topic makes some of her fellow Massachusetts lawmakers squeamish. “It makes some people in this building [the Statehouse] uncomfortable, the word ‘breast,’” Fargo said. “But we’re not going away.”
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, one of Congress’ staunchest breastfeeding advocates, has helped pass several pieces of legislation including a law to protect a woman’s right to nurse a baby on federal property — like national parks and museums — after she heard from moms who’d been booted out of such locations and asked to breastfeed outside, according to the congresswoman’s website.
Maloney plans to re-file legislation that she’s been unsuccessfully pushing for years to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect nursing moms, as well as provide performance standards for breast pumps, create tax incentives for businesses for lactation areas and make breastfeeding equipment tax deductible. The congresswoman is passionate about the issue because she wants “to give women a choice,” said Afshin Mohamadi, Maloney’s press secretary.
Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, who has worked with Maloney on breastfeeding legislation in the past, filed her own bill in February 2003 also seeking to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to qualify breastfeeding as a federal right.
Noting a 1997 policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advising mothers to nurse their babies for a year, legislators say the health benefits of breastfeeding have been well documented. According to the AAP, nursing significantly reduces “a large number of acute and chronic diseases” in babies, provides advantages in growth and development, while simultaneously helping the mother. Breastfeeding also reduces health care costs, employee absenteeism due to child illness and saves money on formula, the physicians’ group reported. The AAP also said that a lack of “broad society support” is one of the primary factors contributing to low nursing percentages.
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