Changing Times: The Controversy Over Breastfeeding in PublicDianna Graveman |12, April 2012
Health professionals and nutritionists have declared for years that breast milk if the best food for newborns. What people haven't always agreed on is whether breastfeeding is acceptable in public.
But this is the new millennium--a progressive society in which magazine covers with half-nude models are displayed on end caps and almost anything goes on prime-time TV. So the sight of a mother nursing her infant in public should no longer startle anyone, right?
Morals and ideas about what is appropriate or offensive may be changing with the times, but intolerance still abounds.
Take for example, the well-publicized case in November 2011 of a Michigan woman who was ordered from a courtroom by the judge for nursing her sick child. Natalie Hegedus was not able to leave her 5-month-old child in daycare, since he was running a fever. When he grew hungry and irritable, she says she discretely began feeding him, taking care to cover her breast. A bailiff noticed, however, and sent a note to the judge--who reportedly called the woman up to the bench and humiliated her and brought her to tears.
And this isn't an isolated incident. In August 2010, Nicole House was in a Crawford County, Arkansas court to testify in a divorce case, when a judge asked if she was breastfeeding. (Nicole also states that her breast was completely covered.) When she answered yes, House said the judge declared, "Don't you ever do that again here!"She filed a complaint with the Crawford County sheriff's department and told today's THV.com, "He really embarrassed me like maybe it was shameful for somebody to breastfeed, and I don't feel that it is."
All this, in spite of the fact that forty-five states, including both the states involved in these court cases--Michigan and Arkansas--have laws specifically allowing women to breastfeed in public or exempting breastfeeding from public indecency laws. An interesting side note: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twelve states have laws that excuse breastfeeding mothers from jury duty, thus eliminating the possibility that a nursing mother will show up in court.
But courtrooms aren't the only places where breastfeeding in public has made the news in recent years. Michigan also came under fire in 2009, when Mary Martinez attempted to nurse her infant in a Target store. According to news stories, the Harper Woods, Michigan, police were called, and the mother and her husband, also a police officer, were escorted from the store, even though the escorting officers admitted that breastfeeding in public is not illegal.
The scene was apparently repeated in 2011 at a Target store in Texas, where mom Michelle Hickman says she was harassed for nursing her son, Noah.
In response to those incidents and in support of breastfeeding mothers everywhere, women across the country--from Kansas to North Carolina to Florida--participated in a national "nurse-in"at their local Target stores in late December 2011, in which they sat on the floor with legs crossed, nursing their infants. Most discretely covered their breasts with a blanket or cloth. A Target representative said the chain has a longstanding policy of supporting mothers who breastfeed and works to continually educate its employees across the country on its customer policies.
In its report about the "nurse-in,"CNN reported that in early 2011, a Utah woman's negative experience in a Whole Foods also sparked a nationwide nurse-in. And in early December, a nursing "flash mob"joined a mother in Brighton, United Kingdom after she was asked to stop breastfeeding in a cafe.
In spite of the protests and shows of support, nursing mothers still encounter resistance. In August 2011, a Houston woman, Penny Montgomery-Schlanser, said she was asked to leave a women's only gym. A woman in an Ohio mall became angry last February when she was asked to move to a family restroom to breastfeed.
But sometimes, as in these cases, there are two sides to the story: The co-owner of the Houston gym says Montgomery-Schlanser was simply asked to leave the Kids Club area where children of both genders were playing, including an 11-year-old boy. And in the case of the Ohio mall mom, several customers had complained she was "overexposed."
For more information on your rights and public policy, visit the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy: http://www.naba-breastfeeding.org/naba.htm.
Visit the National Conference on State Legislatures for more on state breastfeeding laws: http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/health/breastfeeding-state-laws.aspx
Do you feel pressured not to breastfeed in public because someone might get offended? Tell us your experiences and stories below.
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