Is Breastfeeding in Public a Civil Right?


 Breastfeeding has been in the news a lot lately, from Beyonce to campaigns to ban formula freebies in hospitals.  Health professionals promote breastfeeding as beneficial to both mother and child. Most of us, whether or not we have children, have heard by now how it provides ideal nutrition, protects babies from illness, prevents malnutrition, promotes the bond between mother and child, saves money, is environmentally friendly, and can help protect the mother against postpartum bleeding, anemia, and breast and ovarian cancer.

So with growing recognition that “breast is best,” why is there still controversy when women choose to breastfeed their children in restaurants, airports, and even at church? What does the law say? Is asking a nursing mother to move or cover up actually discriminatory?

State Law Offers Some Protection

Based on the recognition of organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Public Health Association, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and the World Health Organization (WHO) that breastfeeding is the best choice for the health of a mother and her baby, 45 states have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed their children in any location.

Even when there is not a state law allowing breastfeeding in public, it doesn’t mean it’s illegal. Michigan, South Dakota, and Virginia, for example, don’t have laws that that specifically allow breastfeeding in any place a mother has a right to be with her child, but do exempt nursing women from public indecency or nudity laws. These sorts of statutes do mean that private business owners may ask a breastfeeding mother to leave, cover up, or move to another area.

Cases of Public Humiliation

Even with the growing awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding, and with the law generally on their side, nursing mothers still find themselves asked to move or cover up in public. In Georgia, a mom of four was kicked out of church after she refused to breastfeed in the bathroom, and in Ohio, a mother was told she couldn’t breastfeed at a local indoor waterpark, despite the fact that she was covered with a towel. One mother sued Delta Airlines after she was asked to cover up while nursing on a plane, and removed from the flight when she refused. A Michigan woman felt “humiliated” when a district court judge admonished her for breastfeeding her four-month-old son in the courtroom.

These sorts of cases are viewed by proponents of public breastfeeding as discriminatory. While some women have won lawsuits against business that wouldn’t allow them to breastfeed on the premises, U.S. and some state courts have generally found that actions regarding breastfeeding, from asking a nursing mother to leave to refusing a woman time and space to pump during work, do not constitute discrimination under federal or state civil law.

Constitutional Right to Breastfeed?

A new Seattle city law made headlines recently by equating breastfeeding with other civil rights. Washington state already legislates the right of a mother to breastfeed any place she and her child are entitled to be; this law goes one step further by specifically making it illegal for business and other entities to ask a nursing mother to stop, cover up, or move to a different location. This includes any place open to the public, such as libraries, theaters, and restaurants.

Some state courts have held breastfeeding to be a constitutional right, similar to the constitutional rights to privacy that include marriage, sexual activity, procreation, and birth control, but the issue has never reached the U.S. Supreme Court. However, a constitutional right is not absolute; it still may be subject to restriction, and may not always apply in a private setting. So even if the matter of breastfeeding in various locations did reach the highest court, it could be found that the right to breastfeed does not automatically override other rights, such as those of private employers.