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The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

House Upholds Limits on Public Nursing

By Michael Corbin | Posted 3/21/2001

Last summer, a Baltimore County woman shopping at a local Toys 'R Us found herself needing to nurse her child. A bench at the front of the store seemed a welcome spot. The store manager did not agree and he told the woman to take her breast-feeding into a rest room. The woman pointed out that she could not breast-feed in the rest room because there was no bench and asserted that she had a right to nurse her baby where she wanted.

But she was wrong. In a Maryland, there is no legal right to breast-feed in public. Earlier this month, a House of Delegates committee voted to keep it that way, rejecting a state Senate-passed measure that would have barred any attempt to "restrict or limit the right of a mother to breast-feed her child" in public.

The bill, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) and in the House by Del. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), stipulated that mothers be allowed to nurse "in any public or private location in which the mother and child are authorized to be." "This was simple and straightforward legislation to encourage and protect what is uncontrovertibly a good practice," says Morhaim, a physician. "I see the overwhelming benefits to breast-feeding, and we should do all we can to encourage it."

But while the Senate unanimously approved the bill March 8, the House Environmental Matters Subcommittee put the kibosh on the measure five days later.

In a March 1 hearing before the House panel, nurses and lactation specialists gave delegates a tutorial on the importance of breast milk for a developing child and argued that both the law and the larger culture should support breast-feeding. But some committee members expressed reservations about legislation authorizing women to bare their breasts in public, regardless of the circumstances.

"This bill was saying that a woman can expose her breast anywhere she damn well pleased as long as she was nursing," says Del. Robert Baldwin (R-Anne Arundel). "I was concerned about modesty. We can't have them just whipping it out."

"We felt that with discretion most women wouldn't have a problem now," says Larry Myers, a Baldwin aide. "A problem only arises when [a nursing mother] is indiscrete."

Delegates opposing the bill touched on that theme during the hearing, one noting that his daughter-in-law only breast-feeds at home. Another questioned why women couldn't use breast pumps so as to have milk in a bottle when their infants needed to be fed while they were out, and yet another asked whether breast-feeding at work was not a form of sexual harassment.

Monika Tomaszewski, an intern in Hollinger's office, says she was surprised by what she termed "rude and aggressive" comments by legislators at the hearing. "They seemed to be frightened [by breast-feeding]," she says. "A concern about 'exposure' came up over and over."

"I am flabbergasted," Morhaim says. "I sometimes don't understand the legislation my colleagues support; I guess they didn't understand this bill or its importance."

Breast-feeding is widely encouraged within the health-care community. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 1997 that all babies be breast-fed for at least 12 months after birth, and in 1995 the World Health Organization urged that children nurse until the age of 2. According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, 64 percent of U.S. mothers start breast-feeding, although less than 29 percent continue past six months and only 16 percent still nurse at one year.

"This is an acquired skill," says Hollinger aide Marty Corona, noting she breast-fed her own children. "It needs family support. It needs support in the culture. Women have been doing it for thousands of years. I'm surprised it's even an issue."

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