April 9, 2001 (Washington) -- There's a new civil rights movement underway, and it focuses on one of nature's most basic functions -- breastfeeding. From "nurse-in" protests at state capitols to demands for "lactation stations" on the job, women are lifting their blouses while, in some cases, bystanders are raising their eyebrows in disdain.
Why has this become such a hot topic? Consider the following events: A mother in Washington state was fired for wanting to breastfeed in her van on her lunch break. An employee of an all-news TV network was booed while people leered at her for breastfeeding at work. A Maryland woman was asked to leave a Toys R Us store for having the temerity to breastfeed in front of other tots.
"Unfortunately, because some people see breasts as purely sexual things, they [can't] understand that you would have a right to feed your child and to nurse them anywhere you would have a right to give them a bottle," Cecilia Magalhaes, mother of two, tells WebMD.
Magalhaes, who lives in a Chicago suburb, has done extended breastfeeding for her two girls, 6-year-old Gabriela and Juliana, age 3. She says she's never had a problem, even in church. But she still believes moms need legal protection to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding proponents insist babies can drink their milk discretely by doing something as simple as draping a shawl over one's shoulder.
"Should a mother have to alter her entire parenting style, and possibly jeopardize the breastfeeding relationship, [and] give her baby bottles in public?" Elizabeth Baldwin, Esq., legal adviser to the breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League International, tells WebMD.
Just last month, a group of about one dozen breastfeeding moms camped in front of the Maryland House of Delegates while a bill that would guarantee their right to breastfeed in public was being debated.
"I know [breastfeeding] is the best thing in the world for babies. It's what the good Lord wanted for kids. But it's already the law. ... Why do we need another one?" the Washington Post quoted Maryland Del. Robert Baldwin (R) as asking about the proposal.
One of the bill's proponents complained that opposition to the measure was hypocritical and ultimately sexist. "You can see what's going on here. They're embarrassed by the natural process, which we encourage all moms to do. ... At the same time, they're the first ones to follow some chick down the street,'" Maryland Sen. Paula Hollinger (D) tells WebMD.
Hollinger, a registered nurse, extols the virtues of breastfeeding and believes some 60% of women are now doing it. When she nursed, she says she had to hide, "and that's not true anymore."
Still, breastfeeding guarantees are a tough sell in many parts of the country -- even at the federal level. For instance, as this story was being written, the Maryland breastfeeding protection law was all but dead in the waning hours of the legislative session.
"The purpose of the legislation is to change the public perception that there's something indecent or wrong with breastfeeding, and the exact attitude of the people who oppose [Maryland's] bill are what you're trying to change," says La Leche's Baldwin.
New York has what is considered the model state statute on public breastfeeding. It guarantees a woman the right to breastfeed even if her nipple is exposed. Hawaii also has a tough pro breastfeeding rights statute. Minnesota and Tennessee have passed requirements so that women will have "lactation stations" that allow them a time and a place to express breast milk on the job.
But the mother of all breastfeeding bills is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). It would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect nursing in public as a constitutional guarantee. It also would set standards for breast pumps and offer tax incentives to companies that encourage breastfeeding. Maloney already got a similar protection enacted for federal workers, but she believes it ought to be extended nationwide.
"We only have a problem with breasts if there's a baby on board," says Hollinger.
Breastfeeding proponents point out that the practice is backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. By conferring the mother's immunity to the baby, it's thought that breastfeeding cuts down on a variety of diseases from type 1 diabetes to asthma or even leukemia. There's also an economic benefit in that Baldwin says using mother's milk could reduce the need for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of formula.
"The idea here is to support and encourage more mothers to make this choice, not to protect society from possibly seeing a little bit of inadvertent exposure of the breast," says Baldwin. "Are we trying to get women off the beaches [for] wearing string bikinis?"