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Breast-feeding: Sense and sensibilities

July 03, 1997 [ Printer-friendly version ]

With barely a peep, California has just passed a bill guaranteeing a woman's right to breast-feed in public places. The vote tally was 28 to 5 in the state Senate and 61-9 in the Assembly.

Wouldn't you like to meet those 14 legislators who have a problem with shameless strumpets caught in the act of breast-feeding their infants?

No, they are not all male. They are, unfortunately, all Republican. And, yes, they are all confused.

How else to explain the comments of Assemblywoman Lynne Leach? This guardian of the commonweal objects to breast-feeding in public places, "especially where children are present." Oh, dear. And I thought that it was breast-feeding (SET ITAL) without (END ITAL) children present that was inappropriate in public.

"I'm fearful," the Hon. Leach continued, "that this will bring tiny babies into circumstances where they don't belong." What sort of circumstances? "Baseball games."

In Greece, where I hail from, the idea of passing a law protecting women's right to breast-feed their babies in public would be laughable. I breast-fed my two daughters until they were 2 years old. I could have given my babies lunch under the pillars of the Parthenon, and nobody, save American tourists, would have batted an eye. No Greek would dream of questioning this right any more than the right to hug children in public.

But here, in this nation founded by English Puritans, public breast-feeding is a matter of controversy. Women have been asked to leave stores, museums, restaurants, health clubs -- even the women-only sections of gyms -- because they were brazen enough to pull down their nursing bras and feed their hungry babies.

So far, 10 states -- including New York, Illinois, Utah and Nevada -- have passed laws clarifying that breast-feeding in public does not constitute indecent exposure -- and therefore is not criminal behavior. The essence of these laws is precisely that babies belong wherever their moms are and can be appropriately fed on whatever public spots they occupy.

The anti-suckling crowd is not confined to legislators and merchants. "I have had a tremendous number of people come up to me and say, 'You're right on this,'" Leach told me. OK, so the sight of an exposed breast makes some people jumpy. But that's their problem. We don't close art museums because a few people can't tell the difference between nudity in Hustler and nudity in a Renaissance painting. Nor should we ban a natural, beneficial and entirely innocent act just because a tiny minority finds any public exposure of a woman's breast unseemly.

At a time when the bonds between mothers and their children are so frayed that newborns are abandoned in the trash and thousands of children are abused by their own mothers, it takes a loopy society to object to this public manifestation of private bonding.

Yet, loopiness has broken out around the land. It even hit that bastion of family friendliness, Wal-Mart, as Dana Derungs found out. "It was my first excursion into the outside world with my 6-week-old baby," she told me from her home in Lebanon, Ohio. "He had been a preemie, so I got real nervous when he started crying his head off. I found the most discreet place to breast-feed him -- outside the women's dressing room."

It was not to be. A Wal-Mart employee -- a middle-aged woman to boot -- told her she could only feed her baby there if she used a bottle. The problem was that Derungs had a cart full of merchandise, a screaming, hungry baby, a full, ready breast and no bottle. In fact, she had never given her baby a bottle -- a practice recommended by all pediatricians not in the exclusive pay of baby-formula companies, at least for the first three months of an infant's life.

Dana Derungs left the store with her crying baby and without her merchandise, but fortunately for breast-feeding moms everywhere, she took up their call. Joining forces with other moms, she founded BMAD -- Breast-Feeding Moms Against Discrimination. And she filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission of Ohio.

In the meantime, a petition is circulating around the state to get a law passed in Ohio similar to the bill the governor is about to sign in California. "As well as being a healthy choice for the mother and the baby," said Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, who introduced the bill, "it's good for the rest of us to witness this bond between mother and child. It reminds everyone that we all have a responsibility for nourishing our children."

It also reminds everyone that we have a responsibility for nourishing the minds of blue-nosed breastaphobes across the land.

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