By Rachelle Lessen, MS, RD, IBCLC
Maybe you have heard the horror stories about mothers and babies being asked to stop breastfeeding in a public place because someone was offended or thought it was indecent.
There was the mother who discretely breastfed her 3 month old infant on a quiet Sunday morning on a bench in a gallery area at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She was asked by a security guard to move to the public steps to sit and feed her baby. The museum later apologized and has since improved their training for new employees to include sensitivity to the needs of breastfeeding mothers and babies. Ironically, Philadelphia has had a city ordinance since 1997 to protect the rights of mothers to breastfeed their infants anywhere the mother and baby are allowed to be.
Women all over the country have had to struggle with lack of public acceptance of breastfeeding babies. In fact, Barbara Walters caused a public outcry by lactation supporters (“lactivists”) when she stated on national television that she was appalled when the woman sitting next to her on an airplane breastfed her baby during the flight. And a mother in New York City recently received an apology and a settlement of $3,600 from Fossil, Inc. when she was humiliated and removed from a showroom when she breastfed her son. Closer to home, a mother in a Reading-area mall was told by a security guard to either cover the baby’s head with a blanket, nurse him in the restroom, or leave.
So, it was a huge step in the right direction when Senator Connie Williams (D., Montgomery) introduced Senate Bill 34 to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania on February 7, 2007. It was approved unanimously by the House of Representatives on July 3 and has been signed into law by Governor Ed Rendell. The bill, known as the Freedom to Breastfeed Act, permits a mother to breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be present, irrespective of whether or not the mother’s breast is covered during or incidental to the breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in public will not be considered indecent exposure, open lewdness, obscenity or sexual conduct, or a nuisance.
Breastfeeding supporters rally to encourage the passing of Senate Bill 34
You may ask why we even needed this law when breastfeeding is the most natural and normal way to feed a baby. Critics might argue that breastfeeding is fine as long as the mother and baby are not doing it in public where others may feel uncomfortable in the presence of a nursing baby. Breastfeeding advocates say that on-lookers can turn away and look at something else if they are disturbed by a mother breastfeeding her baby in public. Mothers should not be forced to hide in a dressing room, or even worse, a bathroom, when out and about with a hungry breastfed infant.
Breastfeeding in public has never actually been illegal, so this law does not change the legal status of public breastfeeding. This new law does not change the right of the owner of a public accommodation, store or restaurant, to withdraw a woman’s authorization to be there. If that were to happen, the woman could be arrested for trespassing. Only the owner could ask the woman to leave – not a clerk, security guard, or waitress. Representative Babette Josephs (D., Philadelphia), who herself was the victim of harassment while breastfeeding, proposed an amendment to the bill to allow a mother to sue the offender if she is denied the right to breastfeed in public. The amendment was later withdrawn to facilitate easier passage of the law.
It still may take generations for breastfeeding in public to become as common and acceptable as a toddler with a sippy cup or a teenager with a water bottle, or (I cringe to say this) a baby with a bottle, but this new law, known as the Freedom to Breastfeed Act, is a start to raise public awareness and to support the health and well-being of our next generation.