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Very Real

Public Breastfeeding Is Now Legal In All 50 States, But New Mothers Still Face Challenges

Politicians in Idaho and Utah—the last two states to legalize the practice—previously resisted the move, with one former Idaho representative warning women could “whip it out and do it anywhere.”

By Samira Sadeque

Public breastfeeding is now legal in all 50 states, after recent bills legalized the often-stigmatized act in Idaho and Utah, the two states lagging behind the rest of the country.

But challenges remain as, Dr. Karin Caldwell, a researcher at the Healthy Children Project, recently told Oxygen.com. “We’re not even sure how to even think about this.”

Dr. Caldwell led a recent study analyzing the low ranking of the U.S. on the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative. Her 2017 research found that while the U.S. has an efficient method of data collection on breastfeeding in the country, it doesn’t do enough to implement changes based on the data.

“We’re not really clear about the definition of public,” she said on Tuesday. “For example, is the hospital lobby a private place or public place?”

Narratives of breastfeeding stigma are nothing new. A woman was removed from a Spirit airlines flight after breastfeeding her child in December. President Donald Trump reportedly called a lawyer “disgusting” in 2011 when she asked to take a break from a deposition to pump breast milk. An Oregon woman was reportedly asked to cover herself while feeding her three-month-old at the primary care doctor’s office.

Even the bills that have now made it legal for women to breastfeed in public faced their own set of challenges.

In Utah, the Breastfeeding Protection Act was signed by the Governor Gary Herbert on March 16, effective as of May 8. The bill was approved by the Legislature after an amendment in the language following concerns from opponents that it would lead to “immodest” behaviour from women, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The language previously said women could breastfeed in public “irrespective of whether the woman’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breastfeeding,” which was met with resistance from politicians, according to the Utah Daily.

“This seems to say you don’t have to cover up at all,” Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan had said according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m not comfortable with that, I’m just not. It’s really in your face.”

In Idaho, House Bill 448 was introduced in January by Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene with the aim to exempt breastfeeding from the “criminal act of indecent exposure.”

“This legislation will ensure that breastfeeding mothers are free from harassment or prosecution for indecent exposure while breastfeeding in public,” the statement of purpose read.

It was signed by the governor on March 20, and was effective as of July 1.

“Personally, I find it disappointing that we’re in 2018 and we still haven’t passed this law in Idaho,” Amador told the House in February, according to the Idaho Statesman. “I also believe the health and nutritional choices of our families are best left as decisions for our families, not our government.”

The state has come a long way from a previously proposed legislation that was rejected in 2003 when former Rep. Peter Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said women would use the opportunity to “whip it out and do it anywhere,” according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

His comments are in direct conflict with existing research that suggest that women, in fact, can be discouraged from breastfeeding at all because of the embarrassment that exists around breastfeeding in public.

“What we know from the work of [British researcher] Patt Hoddinott is that the number of women you see breastfeeding influences your choice to breastfeed or not breastfeed,” said Dr. Caldwell. “If women feel like they can’t breastfeed in public then other women see bottlefeeding, they don’t see breastfeeding as a choice.”

A 2018 UNICEF report shows the U.S. has a lower percentage of breastfeeding population than most other high-income countries. The report also states “positive social norms that support and encourage breastfeeding, including in public spaces” would empower more women to breastfeed.

In spite of these challenges, more women are beginning to be open about breastfeeding in public. Earlier this month, a model breastfed her child while walking down the runway at a swimsuit show in Miami, Florida.

This increasing openness helps the cause, Dr. Caldwell surmises, because the embodied knowledge comes from seeing more than from education about the benefits of breastfeeding.

[Photo: A model breastfeeds while walking the runway for the 2018 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit show on July 15, 2018 in Miami, Florida. By Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated]