Editorial: On breast-feeding law, an attempt at clarity
Back in 1999 with some fanfare and surrounded by appreciative parents, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed into law a measure making it clear that breast-feeding in public was not a crime. It was simple and straightforward: “Breast-feeding a child does not constitute an act of indecent exposure, and to restrict or limit the right of a mother to breast-feed her child is discriminatory.”
Fifteen years later, it turns out, the simple language might have been too simple. The law didn’t end misunderstandings, hurt feelings, public protests or legal fights over the issue. That’s why even a watered-down measure pending at the State House to clarify the law is worth passing.
Regular Monitor readers will recall a 2012 case from Hillsboro in which a patron at a local cafe was asked to cover herself while breast-feeding her child after a diner complained. Insulted, the woman left. The flap was followed by a colorful protest in favor of the mother in which supporters carried signs that read “Nursing is the breast” and “I make milk! What’s your superpower?”
More recently, a woman in Conway fought with her employer – ironically the state Department of Health and Human Services – which had rejected her request to leave work briefly each day to breast-feed her son at his nearby day-care center. That case, now being reviewed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, inspired this year’s legislation.
Uncertainty among women, restaurant managers, employers and others about the rules concerning breast-feeding is not limited to New Hampshire. In Missouri, a judge recently cited a woman for contempt of court and fined her $500 for breast-feeding her baby during jury duty – an episode that has inspired legislation similar to New Hampshire’s. In Wisconsin, officials at a local jail prohibited a woman from expressing breast milk for her newborn daughter during her recent seven-day incarceration, which, she said, prevented her from continuing to lactate and causing digestive problems for her baby. In New York, a new guide points women to the most breast-feeding-friendly restaurants in the city.
In New Hampshire, the pending legislation would replace the law that Shaheen signed with one that specifies that people are allowed to feed a child by bottle or breast in any place open to the public. It goes on to make clear that it is against the law to prohibit a mother from breast-feeding her child, to direct a mother to move to a different location to breast-feed, to direct her to cover her child while breast-feeding or otherwise restrict her from breast-feeding.
Unlike an earlier version, the pending bill does not specify penalties or create new burdens for businesses. In fact, it gives them some cover. In a case like the Hillsboro cafe controversy, for instance, when a restaurateur was caught between a complaining customer and a breast-feeding mother, he or she would now have a clear law for guidance.
Doctors and the government have long encouraged mothers to breast-feed their babies. It’s only fair to make it as hassle-free as possible. Lawmakers should quickly pass the bill.