Lactivists Unite!: Breastfeeding moms band together for their rights

Why did 200 breastfeeding mothers gather in the middle of New York City? Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but no one was laughing at ABC headquarters when nursing mothers protested with signs like "Mama's latte is best." The mothers had gathered to object to comments made by "The View" talk show host Barbara Walters, who said she felt "very nervous" when a woman near her on an airplane breastfed her baby without covering up. Moments later, so-called "lactivists" around the country began organizing the New York City "nurse-in."

This demonstration was one of at least ten already this year, and lactivists are showing no signs of letting up. Nursing mothers are simply fed up with nasty looks, stares and discrimination. Intolerance shows up everywhere, from the airplane to the workplace. Many women are marching to their legislatures for help.

Californian Angela Ponzini became one of these women after she found herself with a nursing baby in one arm and a jury summons in the other. Knowing she couldn't do both, Ponzini sought help from local lawmakers. Assemblyman Ted Lempert later sponsored a bill that allowed breastfeeding mothers to postpone jury service until after their infants have finished nursing. A handful of other states, including Idaho, Iowa and Nebraska, also postpone this civic duty for nursing moms.

While Jury duty is a major hurdle for many nursing mothers, it's one that doesn't come around all that often. A more common everyday concern—and the one that spooked Walters—is seeing a breastfeeding mother in public. Businesses lament breastfeeding mothers as a precursor to bankruptcy, arguing people don't want to see breasts that way in public. One Ohio legislator argued for a business exemption in a proposed lactation bill, protecting businesses from liability due to accidents caused by "spillage."

Thankfully, some major businesses are setting a good example. Both Burger King and Starbucks are on the record with pro-breastfeeding positions. Before announcing their pro-nursing stance, Starbucks had been hit with a letter-writing campaign featuring the phrase, "What's more natural than coffee and milk?"

Businesses aren't the only the place where breastfeeding mothers have seen positive results. New York Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney has tirelessly advocated for breastfeeding mothers. Due to her work, the federal government has taken notice of nursing mothers' plight.

Maloney has been the driving Congressional force for breastfeeding legislation. Her involvement dates back to a 1999 bill signed by President Clinton that made breastfeeding legal on federal property. Maloney has since introduced legislation that would protect breastfeeding women from employment discrimination and grant tax credits to employers with workplace stations for nursing mothers.

Individual states are getting into the game too. In June 2005, Ohio became the latest state to pass a law permitting a mother to breastfeed her baby in public. In all, 39 states have some mention of breastfeeding on the books. Many of these states, including Ohio, California, and Florida, explicitly permit breastfeeding wherever the mother and/or child is lawfully permitted to be. Others specifically exclude breastfeeding from criminal statutes or from definitions of indecent behavior.

New York was the first state to address breastfeeding when it exempted the practice from criminal statutes in 1984. Just ten years later, New York gave nursing mothers the right to breastfeed in public

The sunshine state however has fostered the safest haven for breastfeeding mothers by providing the most comprehensive legislation on breastfeeding. The state calls the practice "an important and basic act of nurture which must be encouraged in the interests of maternal and child health and family values." States like Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana have followed suit by adopting similar language.

Workplace discrimination is also addressed in many statutes, with states such as Hawaii and Minnesota providing standards for employers regarding returning mothers who breastfeed; Hawaii even goes so far as to make nursing mothers a protected class under its laws.

A handful of states, including Maine and Michigan, also require that breastfeeding be considered in divorce cases. And Maryland exempts breastfeeding supplies from state sales tax.

One reason that nursing mothers' rights has become such a hot button issue is that discrimination and other social obstacles can dramatically shorten the length of time a woman is willing to breastfeed. And this can result in compromised health for both mother and child. In fact, The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that $3.6 million in healthcare costs could be saved each year if more mothers breastfed. The reason is fairly simple—breastfed babies tend to require less medical care.

So how much breastfeeding is required for optimal health? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers feed their infants only breast milk for a minimum of six months, after which mothers would ideally continue to nurse for an additional six months while supplementing their baby's diet with other forms of food. Currently, less than one third of nursing mothers continue after six months.

Dr. Lawrence Gartner, a researcher at the Academy, contends that shortened periods of breastfeeding are the direct result of numerous difficulties women face when they need to nurse. These difficulties include general societal stereotypes that the breast is primarily a sexual object. Indeed, FDA research backs up Dr. Gartner's contention that a mother's choice to breastfeed ultimately has more to do with the degree of embarrassment she feels than with anything else.

If the lactivists' high-profile campaign is any indication, the issue of breastfeeding in public isn't going to disappear any time soon. In all likelihood, it will only become more heated as the percentage of nursing mothers continues to rise. While only half of all mothers breastfed in 1990, this number rose to 70% by 2003.

To many it seems odd that American society has stigmatized one of the most natural of acts, especially when most cultures embrace breastfeeding—even those societies that require women to cover themselves from head to toe when in public. While changing the law can't change the minds of people who find nursing mothers offensive, these laws certainly protect the rights of mothers who choose to breastfeed. And this is good news for lactivists who can spend more time nursing and less time storming TV stations.