If you've read Your Right To Nurse In Public or keep up with informative Breastfeeding and the Law posts like this one on the Sustainable Mothering blog, you will have noticed the glaring absence of any federal laws to protect breastfeeding (except in federal buildings). Breastfeeding moms have to scrounge around state-by-state to figure out whether or not they will be protected when they need to nurse in public or pump at work.
Ideally, breastfeeding will be protected as a civil right, and those who attempt to deny mothers this right or discriminate against them will be subject to legal action. These kinds of strong state laws are a rarity, as discussed in this older but thoughtful discussion of Lactation and the Law from Mothering Magazine. At the minimum, basic federal legislation protecting breastfeeding moms, such as that proposed in the Health Care Reform Bill, would be passed.
How can moms help? Here's one easy but helpful way - write to your senators and representatives. Real people with real voices do reach politicians this way, and the more emails and phone calls, the better. If you are reading this now, you are literate, have internet access, and care about breastfeeding. That is all is takes! Brestfeeding moms tend to be a pretty intelligent bunch, too. I'd bet there are a lot of well above average writers out there, so let's do it! Armchair lactivism at its most convenient - and I'm going to make it even easier with a few helpful links!
Remember, most of what breastfeeding moms want is included in The Breastfeeding Promotion Act sponsored last year by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Tell your senators and representatives why this act is important to you and how you feel about being able to breastfeed your child without giving up the right to leave your house or to work. You might also throw in how much it costs for breastfeeding support and supplies to make it clear why this type of expense should tax deductible, considering the contribution you're making to public health.
Since many of the current laws to protect breastfeeding moms have very dull teeth or none at all, what can I do if I've been harassed or denied my rights? One way is to contact First Right. This organization helps breastfeeding moms who have been treated unfairly find justice.
Amid all of the things you have to worry about - namely taking care of your hungry, upset baby - you do not want to hear this loaded and accusing phrase designed to fill you with shame and send you away from the "decent" people. Many women don't realize that, unless this is your mother-in-law talking in her own, private residence (a situation deserving of it's own, separate post), this person is likely 100% wrong!
Anyone who tells you this in a public place (including employees of stores and restaurants) is not only nosy and out-of-line, but is also legally incorrect in all but two US states. Except in Nebraska and Idaho (where public nursing is still not illegal, just not protected yet), you can nurse your baby freely in public - not in a bothroom, not in a "special" hidden room far away, but anywhere you are allowed to be.
See the map posted here with lots more helpful information by the Centers for Disease Control to learn more about your rights, state-by-state. The La Leche Leage is also a great reference for breastfeeding rights. Another informative listing updated in the fall of 2009 is provided by the National Conference of State Legislators.
One great thing to have in your wallet or diaper bag is a breastfeeding rights card or "license to nurse." These can be found online for most states. I am providing links to a couple below as examples.
Printed material can be nice to have, but whether you have it or not, don't be bullied! You might also consider wearing the shirt depicted above which I found at cafe press (throw this onsie on your kid and you're good to go). It will probably cause that manger at Applebees or Toys R Us to think twice before approaching...
More posts to come on this, including other important legislation that has and has not yet been passed to support breastfeeding families, and what you can do to help.
I am a biochemist, not a lawyer, so it wasn't until I started reading "#breastfeeding" posts on Twitter that I realized what an important issue a woman's legal right to breastfeed in public can be.
Again and again, breastfeeding moms are harassed directly or insulted later by people like Barbara Walters, who make many women feel nervous and even ashamed about nursing their children in public. Some moms are even ordered by employees of public establishments to stop nursing or to go to the bathroom(!) or a "nursing appropriate" area. It's enraging that people who are doing the right thing for their family and for overall public health are treated like harlots or smokers.
Of course, much like secondary smoke, there are secondary effects of breastfeeding - these include destigmatizing breastfeeding and showing the future moms and dads out there what feeding a baby properly looks like. Feeding your baby should not feel like going into battle, but it can in a culture where people are taught to be scandalized, offended, or even disgusted by women nursing their babies.
The more laws are enacted to protect a nursing mother in public and other aspects of breastfeeding (including a mother's right to pump at work, and tax deductions for breastfeeding expenses), the more the general public will begin to recognize breastfeeding as the the most acceptable way to feed a baby and anything but "inappropriate."