Guest Author - Nicki Heskin
In Columbia, South Carolina, it was reported that a nursing mother, Heather Silvis, was recently moved into a dressing room by the employees of a Richland County Wal-Mart, in violation of state law, and in a particularly unacceptable fashion. I could not be more livid about this incident.
Based on the articles I read, it appears that after sitting down on a store bench with her 10-month-old baby on her lap, but before she even began nursing, she encountered 5 employees who told her she could not nurse there and must go to a dressing room. At that point, one of the employees wheeled Heather's cart with her 21-month-old child and her belongings into a dressing room, leaving her no choice but to follow! Apparently she was much more composed than I would have been, because if anyone EVER took control of a cart with my child in it without my express permission, I would have a much more extreme reaction than simply following along.
There seems to be some confusion in the numerous accounts I read about whether an employee had first suggested that she nurse on the toilet in the bathroom which Heather declined, and whether she had asked for assistance finding a quiet place to nurse. But whatever the details, she has made it clear in statements that she did not ask to move to the dressing room, but rather was told she had to, and gave no one permission to move her older child in the cart.
Like many people in conflict situations, it seems she was able to process more clearly after the fact how angry the situation made her, and is spreading the word in the hopes of protecting other nursing mothers from the same sort of treatment. Since 2006, South Carolina law Section 20-7-97 has stated, (A) A woman may breastfeed her child in any location where the mother and her child are authorized to be. (B) Breastfeeding a child in a location where the mother is authorized to be is not considered indecent exposure. This is pretty typical of the law in many states that protect the right to breastfeeding in public. However, the problem with laws like these is that they have no enforcement provision – no penalty or fine for violating the law. If Heather had called the police, they might have told the store to leave her alone and that she could breastfeed in any public part of the store she liked, but there is no actual penalty for having harassed her in the first place. So stores, restaurants and other establishments have no real incentive for making sure their employees will respect the rights of nursing mothers or are aware of establishment policies or state laws.
When asked to comment, Wal-Mart's corporate office apologized to Heather but simply said that the employees didn't mean to offend her and were offering the fitting room as a courtesy. I have not seen any mention of how their employee training will change or what is being done to reprimand those involved in this situation.
For my part, I am getting sick and tired of hearing these stories occurring over and over. Frankly, I don't *care* whether someone is uncomfortable seeing breastfeeding. I don't *care* if they can't understand why a breastfeeding mother can't just use a blanket, or go the car or bathroom to nurse, or make the baby wait, or my favorite, just pump and use a bottle when they go out. And I'm sick and tired of being expected to explain it to them. Breasts are for feeding babies – that's why they exist. If people (or is it just Americans, I wonder?) seem to have forgotten that then I think what we need is actually *more* breastfeeding in public. On one of these news sites for this story, there was an opportunity to comment, and someone who was offended by the notion wrote something along the lines of "What is someone supposed to tell their child if they see you doing that?" Um, how about, the baby is breastfeeding – that's how babies eat. It's pretty simple.
And regardless of how people feel individually about breastfeeding, let's be clear. In the states where breastfeeding is protected as it is in South Carolina, and in my own state of California (and for those states where it is not yet, shame on you!), women have a legal right to breastfeed without having to worry about others' opinions on where, how, when or why. It's not a complicated concept. If it makes you uncomfortable, then don't look. You are more than welcome to your opinion when you see a mother and child nursing in public… but if it is in conflict with the law, just keep it to yourself.
WISTV.com (Columbia, SC) - http://www.wistv.com/Global/story.asp?S=9331930&nav=0RaPH6Oz
WACH.com (Columbia, SC) - http://wach.com/news/news_story.aspx?id=221405
Wltx.com (Columvia, SC) - http://www.wltx.com/news/story.aspx?storyid=67705&catid=2 (comments following the story include some responses by Heather Silvis)
South Carolina Law on La Leche League Website - http://www.llli.org/Law/Bills34a.html