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The Right to Breastfeed in Public

In March of 2009, a nursing mother was harassed at an employment office in Winston-Salem North Carolina. According to the local FOX affiliate, the receptionist, citing "office policy" told her that she needed to leave and nurse elsewhere for the "comfort of the men in the office." What made this situation unusual is that the mother, aware of her rights under the law, refused to leave affirming that office policy could not and should not supersede state law. The mother also told the reporter that others in the office came to her defense, bothered by the intrusion.

This was only another in a string of examples of situations where a breastfeeding mother, protected by state law to nurse in public, was nevertheless harassed for feeding her baby. While I am encouraged by the seeming raised awareness of nursing mothers about their rights and the raised consciousness of the onlookers referenced in the article, I am extremely troubled that this sort of situation keeps occurring, and at a government office, no less.

Generally, nursing in public is a discreet act (although let's be clear, it is protected by law whether discreetly done or not). I have nursed in public many hundreds of times and if anyone ever actually saw what most people would consider an "inappropriate" amount of breast exposed, I would be surprised. And frankly, anyone who saw any breast exposed at all would have had to have been watching and looking for it (which truly begs the question of with whom the "problem" resides).

Those who oppose breastfeeding in public tend to focus on the notion of "obscenity" in the potential for or reality of a breast exposed in public. They claim that breastfeeding mothers are lewd attention-seekers who find fun in making others uncomfortable and flashing their breasts around in private spaces.

Here's the thing…

Breastfeeding our babies is not about you.

Breastfeeding is simply about feeding babies. I don't know a single breastfeeding mother who has ever sought attention while breastfeeding in public (organized public protests excepted). And those who object on the basis of obscenity are, in my opinion, being disingenuous. It is not the presence of an exposed breast to which they object, but the overt reality of a breast being used for its natural and primary purpose.

Those who are uncomfortable watching a mother nurse in public simply just shouldn't watch. If you work for a business and someone complains to you that a nursing mother is making them uncomfortable, suggest that they (the observer) remove themselves from the situation or offer them other accommodation.

Under no circumstances should a nursing mother be approached to remove herself or alter her nursing.

Nursing is protected by law in most states (and even if it is not), it is simply not acceptable to harass a woman for breastfeeding. For those who are not clear why it is not ok to expect a woman to nurse elsewhere or "cover up," perhaps this will help.

Would it be acceptable for someone to say --

"I'm a vegetarian and I'm very uncomfortable watching that family eat hamburgers at the next table. Can't you ask them to go eat those another room, or at least cover their food so I don't have to see it?"

Or more to the point –

"I'm just not comfortable sitting around with black people. They really should have a waiting room of their own."

Which is to say that at one point, until laws were in place to protect them, black men and women in America could expect to be harassed in public places and asked to leave "for the comfort of others." And while this may have occurred after laws were enacted to stop this, it was not appropriate or acceptable, and most people now would never even entertain such a thought.

Babies have a right (legal and common sense) to eat in public places, and their mothers have a right to breastfeed them. To those still object to this notion I can only say, please, accept this, look away, and leave nursing mothers alone.


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