ANNAPOLIS – It’s all natural, physician-recommended and good for children, but in the state of Maryland, it’s not protected by law.
Breastfeeding proponents told stories of discrimination and embarrassment to state lawmakers Wednesday, praising legislation reintroduced this session to safeguard a mother’s right to nurse children in public.
Sponsored by Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, the bill is making its sophomore appearance in the General Assembly. Identical efforts fell short in the House of Delegates two years ago, despite unanimous Senate approval.
“We had a number of complaints in our office that haven’t abated from mothers nursing their infants asked to leave public places,” Hollinger said. “Other states are in the same position and are passing legislation to protect nursing mothers.”
Those include Delaware and New Jersey, Hollinger said, along with 13 other states.
Supporters also cited health statistics that show breastfeeding reduces the risk of health problems in infants and mothers. Nursing helps prevent breast and ovarian cancer in women, they said, and helps bolster the immune systems of young children.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue, federal appellate courts have. In 1981’s Dike v. School Board of Orange County (Fla.), 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges said breastfeeding is a protected liberty and “the most elemental form of parental care.”
So why legislate something already legal?
“It’s clarification,” said Jenifer Fahey, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Chapter of the American College of Nurse-Midwives. “Passage will signal to the citizens of Maryland that our state recognizes a woman’s constitutional right to breastfeed.”
That may not be easy. In 2001, the House Environmental Matters Committee voted against the bill, with 5 yeas, 2 nays, 1 absence — and 13 abstentions.
Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, filed the bill at the same time as Hollinger two years ago. He declined to speculate as to why it failed in one chamber but passed unanimously in the other.
Some breastfeeding supporters said those who opposed the bill, as well as those who abstained, did so because they were middle-aged white men and “just didn’t get it.”
Morhaim laughed at the thoughts. “They’re entitled to their perceptions,” he said.
But with a new committee structure in the House, and a large turnover in faces since 2001, proponents feel protection is imminent.
“It’s a show of support from the state,” said Susan Gross, whose initial complaint in September 2000 instigated the effort. “You can’t do one bill for one person, but this time there is a lot of testimony from breastfeeding moms who have had similar problems.”