On Breastfeeding, Rights, and Good Manners

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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.

August
26, 2004

Wendy
McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
.
See more of her work at ifeminists.com
and at her personal website.

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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