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Breastfeeding As Civil Right: Seattle Council Protects Public Nursing

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Johanna Goldhammer, 6 months, sits on the lap of her mother, Camie Goldhammer, chairman of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition, as they listen as others testify about breastfeeding before the Seattle City Council Monday, April 9, 2012, in Seattle.
Johanna Goldhammer, 6 months, sits on the lap of her mother, Camie Goldhammer, chairman of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition, as they listen as others testify about breastfeeding before the Seattle City Council Monday, April 9, 2012, in Seattle.

SEATTLE -- It's already against Washington state law to discriminate against public breastfeeding, but the Seattle City Council on Monday specifically made it illegal for businesses and other entities to ask nursing moms to stop, cover up or move to a different location in public areas.

The council unanimously approved a measure that adds a mother's right to breastfeed her child to a list of protected civil rights, such as race, color, disability and religion – allowing the city's office of civil rights to enforce the law and educate the public about the issue.

"The bottom line is, it's a health issue for our community," said Councilman Bruce Harrell, who sponsored the bill. "It's very clear the benefits of breastfeeding. What we want to do is move the needle in terms of community acceptance of breastfeeding by having our local civil office of rights enforcing the law."

Mayor Mike McGinn will sign the bill into law, his spokesman Aaron Pickus said Monday.

Supporters say nursing moms in Seattle continue to be told to stop, cover up or move to a different area while at cafes, stores, restaurants, theaters and other areas of public accommodation, despite the existing state law.

"We know that every single day, moms are being discriminated against," said Rachel Schwartz, manager of the advocacy group Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington. "It's not about duplicating the (state) law. It's making it easier to follow through with the law."

Dozens of states have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Seattle's ordinance would make it illegal to ask a nursing mom to stop, cover up or move to another location; it would apply to areas open to the public, including doctor's offices, restaurants, libraries and theaters.

Seattle mom Alice Enevoldsen said it's silly that Seattle needs such a law, but she thinks it's important that it passes. It'll be easier for the city to enforce, she said.

"Babies don't have a lot of control over when they're hungry. We need to feed them when they're hungry," said the mom of a 1-year-old. Sometimes that means you're out in a public place, she said, adding: "Just get out of my business. I'm going to feed my baby."

The Seattle Women's Commission lobbied for the bill after hearing from dozens of community and women's groups that mothers were being told to cover up or leave.

"For those who have been discriminated against, it's embarrassing," said Abigail Echo-Hawk with the Seattle Women's Commission. "It can embarrass a woman so much that she may choose to stop breastfeeding."

Eliminating barriers to breastfeeding will help more women continue to nurse, she added.

Since the Washington state law protecting public breastfeeding went into effect in 2009, three mothers have filed complaints with the state Human Rights Commission.

One mother was asked to move to another location while she was breastfeeding her baby in the lobby of her physical therapist in Sultan. She was uncomfortable with the situation so she left the office without keeping her appointment. That business agreed to buy a $5,000 U.S. Savings Bond in the child's name, said Laura Lindstrand, policy analyst state commission.

Two other cases are pending. One complaint was filed by a mother who was told she couldn't breastfeed her baby at a daycare center in Long Beach. Another was filed by a mother who was breastfeeding while soaking at the Sol Duc Hot Springs in Port Angeles.

"I don't think everybody wants to breastfeed in public, but I think we should all have the ability to do what's best for our babies when it's best for our babies," said Enevoldsen, the Seattle mom.

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