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On Breastfeeding, Rights, and Good Manners
August 25, 2004
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.net

On Aug. 7 and 8, over two dozen mothers staged a "nurse-in" at a Maryland Starbucks to protest its breastfeeding policy: namely, nursing mothers must cover up or use the bathroom.

A week later, on Aug. 16, in Illinois, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich signed the Right to Breastfeed Act, which allows women to breastfeed "in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother's breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breastfeeding."

Breastfeeding is becoming a front in the culture war.

At one extreme, breastfeeding advocates claim a civil right to nurse in both public and private locations without a modesty requirement -- that is, without requiring the use of an inconspicuous area or concealment of the breast. At the other extreme, critics say breastfeeding constitutes offensive public nudity and should be conducted in private.

"Public" and "private" are key terms. The nearly 40 states that have breastfeeding legislation deal with those terms in widely divergent ways. Some, like California, give women the right to breastfeed "in any location, public or private, except the private home ... of another"; the mother may sue if breastfeeding is denied. Others, like Virginia, allow breastfeeding on "property owned, leased or controlled" by the state -- that is, public property -- but do not legislate private property. And, then, there is Rhode Island, which merely says breastfeeding in public does not violate criminal statutes.

The case for breastfeeding on public property is stronger than on private property. Public venues are not governed by clear ownership rules. Thus, the argument that breastfeeding is natural and healthy may sway whatever process determines that property's use.

In 1999, President Clinton found the argument compelling enough to sign the "Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act" into which Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., had inserted language that legalized breastfeeding on federal property.

By contrast, private property has clear ownership rules; the owner should determine what is acceptable behavior by customers or visitors. That's why there are "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service" signs. Control of access comes with ownership and it applies no less to a business than it does to a home.

Some breastfeeding advocates make an end-run around property rights by claiming that nursing is a civil right. For example, H.R. 2790 introduced in 2003 by Rep. Maloney attempts to "amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect breastfeeding by new mothers." It is currently before the Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations.

Private property has been under attack for decades by those who claim that an owner who "inappropriately" denies access to his property is violating civil rights. For example, an owner who refuses to serve women customers is said to violate their "right" to non-discrimination.

But no valid civil right entitles anyone to benefit from another person's possessions, from another person's time and labor. No one has a civil right to access someone else's property without the owner's consent. To demand such a "right" is an uncivil act that strips away one of the main protections of a peaceful society: namely, the line dividing what is mine from what is yours.

Nursing mothers have no right of access to a private business that says "no." And even sympathetic owners might find it prudent to object. For example, a restaurateur who operated on the margin might need those customers who would prefer not to dine next to conspicuous breastfeeding. He might need "the family trade" that includes parents who don't want their children to view bare breasts.

The issue of nudity applies to breastfeeding on public property as well. Some states, like Missouri, provide that women have a right to publicly breastfeed "...with as much discretion as possible." The question here is of good manners and common sense, which, like property rights, are also protections that make a peaceful society more probable.

Fortunately, most nursing mothers are not likely to protest reasonable rules that ask them to breastfeed in a discreet area or to cover the breast. In fact, they are likely to welcome the privacy.

Unfortunately, some breastfeeding advocates want society to do more than reasonably accommodate a woman's choice in how, when, and where to feed her baby. They seem to want people to accept and applaud her choice by insisting on her "right" to expose them to it on her terms. Thus La Leche League, one of the largest advocacy organizations, rejects Missouri's "discretion" requirement.

LLL writes, "This restrictive language requiring discretion does not promote breastfeeding, and should not be copied by other states."

People who do not embrace the sight of breastfeeding are deemed to be anti-mother or anti-baby when they may be simply anti-rudeness.

Breastfeeding is natural and our society undoubtedly overreacts to naked breasts. But the winner-take-all approach of extreme advocates only acts to polarize society on a problem for which reasonable solutions can evolve. When done with some discretion, public breastfeeding is becoming socially acceptable with many businesses accommodating the shift.

Breastfeeding need not devolve into cultural warfare. The issue will yield to courtesy, common sense and a bit of respect for the other person's rights.

Copyright © 2004 Wendy McElroy.

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