Idaho and Utah recently joined the party, meaning that parents in every state can legally breastfeed in public.
Over the years, stories of people who have been asked to leave restaurants or other public places because someone complained about the way they fed their babies have made headlines, prompting outcry from advocates and providing fodder for debate among the masses.
Prior to states passing laws, there was little recourse for parents in such incidents. In fact, breastfeeders could be cited and fined for public indecency if a law enforcement officer responded to a complaint in some situations.
Photo by Ezequiel Becerra/Getty Images.
These laws were not passed without controversy — in fact, Utah's almost didn't make it past committee.
Utah's Breastfeeding Protection Act passed the House Business and Labor Committee by the narrowest of margins in February, with a 6-5 vote in favor. Sponsored by Rep. Justin Fawson, the bill states that breastfeeding is legal "in any place of public accommodation." The original bill also clarified that it didn't matter whether the breast was covered or uncovered.
"I don't feel like we should ever relegate a mom to a restroom to breastfeed their child," Fawson told the local news. "That's a big reason why I'm running the bill. I'm seeking to further normalize breastfeeding and allow moms to feed their babies as needed."
Others lawmakers took issue with it, however. Rep. R. Curt Webb, one of the five who voted against the measure, expressed concerns about modesty. “But this seems to say you don't have to cover up at all," he said. "[I'm] not comfortable with that at all, I'm just not. It's really in your face.”
When language about the breast being uncovered was removed from the bill, it passed in the Utah House of Representatives 66-5.
Breastfeeding parents have worked hard to get these laws passed through legislatures largely dominated by cisgender men.
One issue that has long affected the legality of breastfeeding in public is the fact that legislatures have long been dominated by people who don't give birth or breastfeed. Even in 2018, only a quarter of state legislators are women — a percentage that has barely changed in the past 20 years. In fact, Utah's House Business and Labor Committee (the one who narrowly passed the Breastfeeding Protection Act to send it to the House floor) is made up of 11 men and one woman.
It's not that cis men can't pass laws that benefit cis women and folks of other genders who give birth — but when your whole gender historically hasn't done any breastfeeding, you may be less likely to sympathize with the needs of those who have and still do. Hence the need for decades of appealing to legislators, staging "nurse-ins," and other acts of civic engagement being performed by breastfeeding advocates to provide legal protections to nursing parents and babies.
Eligia Spinosa breastfeeds her 2-month-old son outside New York's City Hall during a rally to support breastfeeding in public in 2014. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
After all, these laws are only necessary because too many people see breastfeeding as something sexual or perverse.
Far too many people conflate feeding a baby with immodesty or exhibitionism. And while there's a lot that can be discussed about breastfeeding in public — you can read responses to common complaints about it here — there are a few points that must be reiterated over and over until the general public internalizes them:
- There's nothing sexual about breastfeeding. Breasts are biologically designed for feeding babies. Yes, they have a sexual function, too — but so do mouths, and no one complains that people eat with their mouths in public. Two totally different functions that can, and should, be wholly differentiated.
- If you really don't want to see someone breastfeeding, don't watch. Moving one's eyes a few millimeters in one direction is a whole lot easier than keeping a cover over a squirmy breastfeeding baby, and far more desirable than banishing a parent and baby away from people to eat.
- Breastfeeding parents already have enough on their plate. Having a baby is hard. Let's give parents some grace and applaud them for keeping their tiny humans alive in whatever way they deem best — without forcing them to sit on public toilets to do it.