Nearly every state in the country, with the exception of Idaho and Utah, has a law specifically allowing women to breastfeed in public without fear of being asked to leave ― a legislative nod to the fact that doctors, major medical organizations and even the United States government all urge new moms to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding has been a public health priority for decades, with groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics touting benefits like decreased risk of infection and sudden infant death syndrome. Despite this, anemic legal protections and a culture of shame around public breastfeeding contribute to the fact that only 27 percent of American moms breastfeed their babies for a full year.
Utah currently exempts breastfeeding moms from indecent exposure laws, but stops short of stating outright that they can breastfeed in public. That means nursing mothers can still be asked to leave public spaces, state Rep. Justin Fawson (R), who sponsored the state’s Breastfeeding Protection Act, meant to cement the right to breastfeed in public, told HuffPost.
But the bill almost didn’t pass through Utah’s House Business and Labor Committee this week, with six votes for it and five against — all from men. The legislation’s narrow passage through committee shows that judgment of breastfeeding mothers is alive and well, and exemplifies why a 2011 Surgeon General report found that embarrassment remains a “formidable” barrier to breastfeeding for American moms, according to Dr. Joan Younger Meek, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ section on breastfeeding.
The bill would clarify that women can nurse in public “irrespective of whether the woman’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breastfeeding.”
And it is that last part — the possibility that a woman’s chest might be exposed while she is, say, fastening her bra, or if her baby happens to move its head to look around — that made state Rep. Curt Webb (R) uncomfortable.
“This seems to say you don’t have to cover up at all,” Webb said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m not comfortable with that, I’m just not. It’s really in your face.”
“I wish that I could say that I am surprised that five men voted against protections for women breastfeeding in public, but I am not.”
Male lawmakers have previously expressed concern about the potential of seeing a breastfeeding woman’s nipples. In 2015, a New Hampshire state representative drew national attention for his (quickly deleted) Facebook comment saying, “if it’s a woman’s natural inclination to pull her nipple out in public and you support that, than you should have no problem with a mans inclantion [sic] to stare at it and grab it.”
Last fall, the city council in in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, voted to ban children from its meetings after several members complained about seeing one of their colleagues breastfeed during a meeting — though it wasn’t just male councilmembers who voted for the ban.
The reality is, babies eat often. Young infants can be counted on to nurse at least every two to three hours. Lactation experts say women must have the option of nursing in public if for no other reason than it makes it possible for them to leave their homes for more than an hour or two at a time.
“If anyone has a problem seeing a woman feeding her child, you have to ask ‘Why?’” said Julie Matheney, a Los Angeles-based lactation consultant. “Why are you having a problem with it, when that’s what the breast is designed for? It’s a feeding organ.”
In an email to HuffPost, Webb stood by his comments.
“I agree that breastfeeding is extremely beneficial to infants. I believe that mothers should be free to do so, and I also believe that doing so in public is acceptable,” he wrote. “However, I also believe that most of my constituents prefer that nursing in public should be done discreetly. The wording of the bill as presented in committee, specifically excluded any requirement to be considerate of the feelings or sensitivities of others.”
“I do not believe that there is any malice or character flaw in those traditional values of modesty,” he added.
Yet while even the pope has encouraged public breastfeeding several times, calling it the “language of love,” research suggests Webb is not alone in his opinion.
“I wish that I could say that I am surprised that five men voted against protections for women breastfeeding in public, but I am not,” said Meek, of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A 2014 phone survey in New York found that 50 percent of respondents did not approve of public breastfeeding, while a 2016 study out of the United Kingdom found a majority of commenters supported public breastfeeding when it is discreet.
The question, of course, is what “discreet” public breastfeeding means. Though some women prefer to use a nursing cover, many babies simply will not tolerate them, Matheney said.
“While most mothers are discreet when nursing, if there is exposure of the breast in the act of breastfeeding the infant or child, the women should be protected,” Meek said. “If we believe that breastfeeding is a vital matter of public health for mothers and children, we should be supporting it in all venues, and legislative protection is a part of that support.”
Fawson agrees, telling HuffPost he is confident the bill he sponsored will pass when it is heard on the House floor.
“I think it’s shocking that there remains a perception by some that breastfeeding is anything other than a ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ function,” he said. “To see the act of a mother feeding her baby as a sexualized act is surprising to me.”