Last summer, Nirvana Jennette was breast-feeding her baby daughter at a Georgia church when she was asked to cover up. When her daughter didn’t cooperate — as babies are wont to do — the controversy escalated, culminating with Jennette’s pastor calling her disrespectful, intimating that she could face public indecency charges and equating breast-feeding with stripping.
Fast-forward to March, when Jennette and other breast-feeding advocates from around the country are organizing a nurse-in set for Monday at five sites around Georgia, including the State Capitol. It’s there that Jennette and other activists met with a handful of legislators on Wednesday, lobbying them to toughen the state’s public breast-feeding law.
Every state except West Virginia and Idaho has a law protecting the rights of mothers to nurse their infants anywhere they are allowed to be — a mall, a school, a library, a park. Yet only about 10 states actually enforce the law, accompanying the legalese with some actual punitive teeth in the form of monetary sanctions. Now Jennette is at the forefront of trying to persuade Georgia legislators to join that group. Wednesday marked Jennette’s first time ever meeting with legislators, and several elected officials expressed interest in nudging along the legislation. The depth of their commitment has yet to be tested, although Jennette remains hopeful.
“It was overwhelming,” says Jennette, a doula and childbirth educator from Camden County, south of Savannah. “I didn’t see myself ever being here doing this. I was okay being a mom at home. But our law needs to be changed so it’s a comprehensive, supportive law for breast-feeding mothers.”
Every state needs a public breast-feeding law with an enforcement provision, says Jake Marcus, a Philadelphia attorney who laughingly describes herself as the country’s foremost expert on breast-feeding law. (“That’s not saying a lot,” says Marcus. “There aren’t many of us.”) Yet she notes that even if the legislation succeeds, it’s not likely to make much of a difference in terms of Jennette’s run-in with her pastor: houses of worship are generally exempt from public-accommodation regulations.
Marcus, who has helped craft the proposed Georgia legislation, says women can be lulled into a false sense of security when they hear they have the right to breast-feed anywhere they’re authorized to be. “They see the word right and think, No one can interfere with me,” says Marcus. “But a right without a remedy is not a right.”
The proposed legislation calls for a fine of up to $1,000 for those who “restrict, harass or penalize a mother who is breastfeeding her child, require a mother to leave the premises [or] require a mother to move to a different location on the premises if the mother is otherwise authorized to be in her current location.” Nursing in the bathroom, anyone?
The draft adds that nursing mothers should not have to contend with public indecency laws, stating that breast-feeding should not be considered “lewd, indecent, immoral, or unlawful conduct”; Jennette says her pastor, whom she hasn’t named, suggested she could be arrested for public indecency. The legislation also champions the rights of working mothers who need to pump on the job, calling on employers to provide a room other than a toilet stall for mothers to use during minimum breaks of 30 minutes for every four hours worked. Employers who don’t comply could face a $1,000 fine.
The women who’ve helped assemble the proposed changes include veritable celebrities in the world of breast-feeding advocacy — Michelle Hickman, a Texas mom who spearheaded the Target nurse-ins that took place across the country in December, and Lani Michelle, a mother in Boston who has led a campaign to urge Sesame Street to depict breast-feeding along with bottle-feeding on the show.
They’ve taken a gamble by including wording that targets “habitual violators” — organizations, businesses or churches that breech either the public breast-feeding protections or the workplace pumping requirements more than three times in one year. Such offenders could be subject to a steep $10,000 fine that would go toward promoting breast-feeding in Georgia. No other state has a “habitual violators” clause, says Marcus, and backers realize it’s unlikely it would make it through negotiations.
“This is a long shot,” notes Michelle. Says Hickman: “If we get it, it would be cool to have. You shoot for the stars, and if you hit the moon, you’re doing alright.”
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