ActivismFeminismPoliticsReligion and SpiritualitySkepticism

On The Boob: Breastfeeding (In Public)

As a baby, I was not breastfed. My mom was fifteen and it was weird for her, so she went with the bottle. We could spend time delving into the interesting physiological and psychological differences I have to others who were breastfed, but that's for another time.

For mothers who do nurse, occasionally their babies will begin the screaming in a public place. In forty-five states, the law explicitly says that these mothers could go ahead, whip out the boob, and feed their children. Washington is among those states, having passed legislation in 2009 declaring breastfeeding a civil right. Washington is also among twenty-six other states exempting breastfeeding from indecent exposure laws, and twenty-three states with laws protecting breastfeeding mothers in the workplace.

Despite having protections on almost every level, there have been three official complaints to the state Human Rights Commission. In response, the Seattle City Council has passed an additional law making it illegal to ask a breastfeeding parent to stop, cover up, or relocate

My personal opinion is that breastfeeding is not a big deal. It's generally accepted that breast milk is healthier for the baby than formula. There are supposedly emotionally beneficial reasons (for mother and child) to breastfeed. Moreover, my personal views about nudity are probably more lax than others. Clothing is a necessity for temperature control. The widely accepted need for clothing in modern times is based on morality, which is–of course–relative and arbitrary.

Should asking a mom to stop nursing, cover up, or relocate be illegal? Should it be punishable by law? 

According to this, in 2003, 70% of new mothers started breastfeeding, 36% were still doing it at 6 months, and 17% were still breastfeeding at 12 months. It is apparently a common concern that parents will not attempt to nurse, or will stop doing so earlier without support from society, family, friends, and the workplace. The laws are being put on the books because, theoretically, the embarrassment and hassle of having someone tell you to feed your child somewhere else is enough to make someone stop breastfeeding entirely. 

In addition, it is my belief that the heavy influence of the church on Western society is a contributing factor to the public's view of nudity. Clergy must be celibate, women are stoned to death for losing their virginity before marriage, homosexuality is punishable by death, etc. Adam and Eve cover themselves after they eat the fruit which gives them knowledge of right and wrong. (Hence, nudity=wrong.)

As an anti-theist, I wholeheartedly agree with Seattle's law. There is no logical reason to be against a mother breastfeeding in public. Relating to mothers stopping earlier, I think individuals should do what they feel is best for their baby regardless of what others think. If this group of people is vulnerable or feels threatened, they should have the law on their side. 

On the other hand, maybe it would be a good idea to leave other people alone. It's a boob, it has a nipple. It isn't going to bite you.

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Lux is a female genderqueer weirdo, writing from Kansas. They happily identify as a militant atheist(+), feminist and liberal. Their time is consumed with Doctor Who, reading, and playing WoW with a cat on their lap. If you're lucky, you might catch them smithing jewellery or cleaning something.


  1. April 12, 2012 at 3:21 am —

    Sorry, I don't get the "heavy influence of the church on Western society" bit. That doesn't seem to fit with the facts.
    1. The Christian world has been responsible for more nude art over the years than anyone else since Classical times.
    2. To a first approximation, clergy are not celibate in any church except one. Though it is the biggest one, it's not the biggest one in any English-speaking country apart from Ireland.
    3. Also to a first approximation, nobody has ever been stoned to death by the European Christian church. Christians have a taboo against stoning people, probably because in the very early years they tended to be on the receiving end.
    4. I'm not sure what homosexuality has to do with nudity or breastfeeding.
    5. I'll grant you Adam and Eve, though I will point out that the subtext of the story is actually that not being ashamed of nudity is more "godly".
    But more to the point, it's pretty much only a problem in the USA. Breastfeeding in public has been legally protected in Canada, the UK, Germany and Australia for decades. Those are only the countries I know about. In most places in the Western world, it makes news when someone complains about public breastfeeding precisely because people who object to it are rare.
    Apart from that one paragraph, this was a great write-up. Babies should be allowed to eat anywhere that anyone else is allowed to eat, and nobody should be allowed to stop them. But this isn't because of any relgious beliefs or lack thereof, it's because I don't live in the USA.

    • April 17, 2012 at 11:04 am —

      You make a lot of very good points. I think that religion has sort of gotten out of hand in the US (I can't speak to other countries, you seem to know more about Europe than I do). Religion is the excuse for a lot of destructive behavior, and a lot of silly outrage over harmless things (in the US).
      Side note before I continue: Homosexuality is related to nudity because they're both 'sexual' in nature (or can be thought of as sexual, of course homosexual relationships are more than just sex and a mom feeding her kid isn't sexual).
      The terms "conservative" and "Christian" are fairly intertwined in my head because of American politics. I would say that people with conservative opinions such as being against nudity, against homosexuality and marriage equality, pro-abstinence, etc have those opinions based on a religious (often Christian) background. I can't imagine very many reasons why a person would ask a breastfeeding person to cease, aside from a personal problem with nudity, which would very likely stem from a strong moral impression that nudity is wrong.
      That is the way these things work in my head, and I apologize for not explaining very well in the post. Basically my thought process is Christianity in the US is not good with sex in general, so if an individual views something as overly sexual (such as the exposure of a nipple) enough to ask a person to stop breastfeeding, it's likely that it stems from the morals of religion.

      • April 18, 2012 at 4:01 am —

        Thanks. I did like your write-up as a whole. I hope I made that clear. This is an issue that's very important, even if it's a non-issue in most places in the world.
        I said "European Christian church", but I don't think I should have. What I wanted to say that Christians have never stoned anyone, but I decided to fact check that claim before I posted, and it turns out that it's almost, but not quite, true.
        In Africa, traditional tribal practices have a habit of mixing with adopted religions. The classic example that comes up on Skepchick regularly (and my apologies for bringing up the unsavory topic) is female genital mutilation, which is a traditional tribal practice imported into the local flavour of Islam.
        It turns out that something similar has happened with stoning in some African flavours of Christianity. Stoning is not a traditional Christian practice by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been adopted in some places, such as Nigeria.
        The group in your mind that you think of as "conservative" and "Christian" is, more or less, the conservative "evangelical" protestant right-wing… you get the idea. Southern Baptists are the largest denomination in the US, but bear in mind that Al Gore is Southern Baptist, and so was Jimmy Carter until he quite recently left in disgust. (Look up "fundamentalist takeover" on Wikipedia some time.)
        There is no homogeneity in Christianity, even in the US. Indeed, the very notion of  "Christian" as a demographic only dates back to the Cold War. And today, the LDS and the Unification Church movement appear to have gained enough respectablity to be part of the "religious right". Those who fall into the "religious right" group probably comprise about a third of those who self-identify as some kind of Christian.
        That's a lot of people, it's true. And it's dangerous. But it's not everyone.

  2. April 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm —

    I don't think I understand how this isn't a vioaltion of freedom of speech. Yes, telling mothers to not breast feed is stupid and insensitive and might encourage poor health choices; despite the mother having the right to keep doing so. But, for example, encouraging a mother not to vaccinate her child is also stupid, insensitive, and might encourage poor health choices; yet is covered under freedom of speech.
    I'm not sure the government can ban words said from one person to another, even if they are bad. In all my legal expertise (which, I admit, is none) I don't expect that this law could hold up if it were ever challeneged.

    • April 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm —

      Hooray! A positive breastfeeding post!

      Zach, freedom of speech doesn't cover commanding someone to stop doing something that is legal. This is intended to protect breastfeeding. Laws like this are needed because it is unfortunately common for employees of places such as museums and restaurants to tell women to stop breastfeeding or leave their establishment. It is comparable to other protected behavior or experience. I don't think it is appropriate to compare everything to "just like black people", but you can't tell someone of a certain ethnicity to leave a business or public place, or have someone remove a piece of religious clothing. Simply because an action involves speaking does ot make it protected as free speech.

      • April 17, 2012 at 10:28 am —

        Are there anti-breastfeeding posts out there? Those people sound like they would make my head hurt…
        I hadn't particularly thought of this as a free-speech issue. Precisely as Hilary is saying, you can't ask someone to leave due to their ethnicity or religion. In several states, status as a breastfeeding mother is included in anti-discrimination (civil rights) legislation. It is, quite literally, as offensive and inappropriate to ask a parent to stop breastfeeding their child as it is to tell an African American to use the "Colored" water fountain.

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