Breastfeeding Is A Civil Right

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900px-Breastfeeding-icon-med.svgThis past week, I escaped to sunny California with my 7-month-old. As we made our way across the country by bus, plane, and car, one thing that made our travels infinitely easier was that I could breastfeed my daughter as we went. It gave her comfort, helped her go to sleep (something everyone else on the plane appreciated), and was far more convenient, safe and sanitary than bringing along bottles of formula or mushed-up bananas.

For the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what a non-issue breastfeeding in public is. Most people understand that it’s a natural and important part of daily life for many mothers and young children. In my countless experiences feeding my children in restaurants, planes, trains, busses, parks, museums and yes, even courtrooms, I’ve mostly been politely ignored.

But that’s not always the case. As I was riding the bus from Logan back to Maine a few days ago (where I breastfed without incident), I came across a story in the local news about a Maine woman who had been breastfeeding her 7-month-old at a Lewiston restaurant when a waitress told her that the mother should be “more discreet” and turn her chair to the wall because other customers were uncomfortable. The mother, Stephanie Whitmore, was understandably shocked and humiliated.

The news story sparked a highly emotional debate, both online and off. Online, the vast majority of online commenters were supportive of the breastfeeding mother – sometimes aggressively so. They made the commonsense points (although often with far more colorful language) that breastfeeding is natural, healthy, and reveals no more skin than necessary, and that anyone who does feel uncomfortable about it can just look away.

But a small, vocal minority complained that breastfeeding in public is offensive, indecent, and a signal of our society’s inevitable moral decline. One commenter told the mother at the Lewiston restaurant to “just get a babysitter” and compared feeding her baby in public to “taking a dump” in the restaurant. Another called it “sickening” and found it evidence that “people have no class or shame any more!”

The debate continued offline as well. On Monday, a group of nursing mothers staged a “nurse-in” demonstration at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston, where the restaurant was located.

There is no debate, though, about what the law requires. As I’ve written about previously, Maine law is clear that women have the legal right to breastfeed in any location they are legally permitted to be. That includes places like restaurants, parks, movie theaters, retail stores, and office lobbies. And federal law protects women’s right to breastfeed on any federal property where they are authorized to be.

So while there may still be a few stragglers, the tide of public opinion and the law are on the same side. Breastfeeding your child is a civil right, not an act of indecent exposure.