What Are the Laws Regarding Breastfeeding?
By Virginia Gilbert
I wasn’t being indiscreet,” says Sheryl Letwat, referring to an incident at an Illinois restaurant. “I wasn’t displaying myself for sexual purposes.” On the contrary, Letwat was nursing her 5-week-old son when the restaurant manager told her some patrons were uncomfortable with her breastfeeding. The female manager then handed Letwat a towel and asked her to “cover up.” Citing her constitutional right to breastfeed, Letwat refused to drape herself or to stop nursing. Although she stayed to finish her meal, she admits the event has discouraged her from returning to the restaurant or from recommending it to other breastfeeding moms. “Who needs the hassle?” she says.
The Feds Say
In September 1999, President Clinton signed into law the “Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act,” which included legislative language by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) to make breastfeeding legal anywhere on federal property. “The last thing a mom needs is someone giving her a hard time about her decision to breastfeed her child or accusing her of violating arcane ‘indecent exposure’ laws,” Maloney says. “The only thing indecent about breastfeeding is that some women have been harassed about it.”
Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, Maloney introduced three other pro-breastfeeding bills that were referred to the Senate:
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act Amendment (H.R. 1478)—Prevents nursing women in the workplace from being fired or otherwise discriminated against for expressing milk or breastfeeding during lunch or break time.
“The last thing a mom needs is someone giving her a hard time about her decision to breastfeed.”
The Breastfeeding Promotion Employers’ Tax Incentive Act (H.R. 1163)—Gives tax credits to employers who install nursing mothers’ stations at the workplace. Some companies, such as Hewlett-Packard and Kellogg’s, have already put such rooms on site.
The Safe and Effective Breast Pumps Act (H.R. 3372)—Requires the FDA to develop minimum quality standards for breast pumps.
According to Maloney’s press secretary, Nicole Harburger, the congresswoman is “especially optimistic” about the Pregnancy Discrimination Act Amendment, which has “good bipartisan support.” All three bills are parked in various Senate committees.
The federal government isn’t the only place where breastfeeding moms can turn for legal protection. Individual states have enacted legislation that will preserve a woman’s right to breastfeed. To find out what the laws are in your state, visit La Leche League’s summary of breastfeeding legislation.
In California, Oregon, Iowa and Idaho it’s actually legal for nursing mothers to claim automatic exemption from jury duty. When Angela Ponzini of Menlo Park, Calif., was unable to get out of jury service for nursing her child, she wrote a flurry of letters to lawmakers protesting the decision. Inspired by Ponzini’s determination, Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos) subsequently sponsored a bill that allows a breastfeeding woman to postpone jury duty until her infant is no longer nursing without having to gain permission from a judge.
If you don’t live in one of the automatic exemption states and you wish to be exempted from jury duty, you should follow the counsel of the late Elizabeth Baldwin, former Florida attorney and leading expert on breastfeeding and the law:
- Check state laws to find out if there are any exemptions that could apply.
- If no exemptions apply, request to be excused by writing to the address on the summons letterhead.
- Check state laws La Leche League also has several documents available including “Breastfeeding Does Make a Difference” and “Facts About Breastfeeding.”
You Have a Say
Whether it’s at the local or federal level, you have the right—and duty—to let legislators know what’s important to you. Contact your local and federal legislators, and let them know that you believe nursing mothers should have the right to feed their children how and where they need to.
As the public gains greater recognition and respect for the value of breastfeeding, more states will enact laws to protect the nursing relationship. In the meantime, women can help push such laws into effect simply by contacting their local politicians’ offices.
Abby’s Experience with Jury Duty
Abby Aldrich is the mother of twins. A stay-at-home mom in Michigan, Aldrich had been nursing for 10 months when she received a jury duty summons. “I was scared, because I had been exempted the previous year due to being on bedrest during my pregnancy,” she says. “At the time of my first exemption, I got a notice stating that I would be expected to serve the following year—no exceptions.”
At the urging of a friend who had successfully claimed exemption to jury service because of nursing, Aldrich immediately faxed a letter to the judge who had summoned her. In the letter, she explained that nursing was a special health consideration for her twins, who were born prematurely and remained at risk for respiratory ailments.
Although Aldrich did receive an exemption, a courthouse official told her that “the judge wanted to make sure I knew that there would be no more exemptions.” The official also stressed that she would be expected to serve when the twins were 23 months old—even though Aldrich made it clear in her letter that she intended to nurse for two years or more.
“I think that nursing mothers and stay-at-home parents should be able to be exempted for as long as they need to be,” says Aldrich. “A lot of mothers I know don’t have anybody that they trust to care of their children. What would they do [about jury duty]?”