Doylestown Borough backs women's right to breast-feed in public

Allegra Avila holds daughter, Ora, 20 months, at Doylestown Borough Council meeting Monday. She spoke in support of the amendment to the anti-discrimination law that supports a woman's right to breast-feed in public. (Bill Reed/Staff)

Allegra Avila likes to hang out in Doylestown Borough’s coffee shops, book store and library with her 20-month-old daughter, Ora, but she feels anxious when it’s time to breastfeed.

“Feeding in public is not an easy thing to do,” the young mother says. “It’s uncomfortable, wondering what people are thinking about you.”

Now, thanks to a measure passed  by the borough council, “I can nurse when the baby is hungry and when we need to,” Avila said Tuesday. “I will be able to relax.”

The council voted 6-3 Monday to amend its anti-discrimination law to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. The amendment provides a remedy when a woman is told to leave a store, restaurant or park, or to move, such as to feed in the bathroom.

Supporters called the measure “historic,” with Doylestown becoming the second municipality in the state to provide a remedy for such discrimination.

Opponents called it redundant to Pennsylvania’s law and unnecessary, since there have been no recent complaints of discrimination.

Council President Det Ansinn said he proposed the amendment because he had heard talk of women “feeling uncomfortable” about breastfeeding in public in the borough.

“My wife nursed our three children in this town, and now a new generation of nieces and nephews is coming along,” he said. The amendment “supports the governor’s public health policy of encouraging breastfeeding.”

Seattle recently enacted a similar measure, Ansinn said.

Forty-five states have laws allowing public breastfeeding, with Pennsylvania’s Freedom to Breastfeed Act one of the weakest because it lacks any remedy, said Jenkintown lawyer Jake Marcus.

“It’s beyond toothless,” said Marcus, who worked on early version of the law before it was passed in 2007.

“The state has given permission as opposed to the right,” Councilman Don Berk said in supporting the borough’s measure. “That’s demeaning.”

Under the amended law, a woman can file a complaint at Borough Hall, and Doylestown’s Human Rights officer will talk to the named party, such as a shop owner or employee.

When there’s no resolution, the officer will investigate the incident and try to work it out with both sides. Otherwise, the officer will present the findings of fact to the borough’s volunteer Human Relations Commission.

“Conciliation and fact-finding will resolve most cases,” borough lawyer David Conn said.

Councilwoman Joan Doyle voted against the amendment, though she is “100 percent supportive of breast-feeding mothers.”

“This affects local businesses. It makes it difficult for an owner to balance concern for customers with breastfeeding,” she said.

“This is an unnecessary solution to a problem that we do not have,” Doyle added, citing the state law and the lack of any complaints in her 11½ years in the borough.

Jona Franklin, owner of the Lillies of the Field women’s clothing store on South Main Street, said the borough “is so quick to jump in and create a law. It puts the borough in a confrontation position with the merchants.”

Women are “always welcome” to breast feed in her store, and she provides a comfortable chair tucked in a corner and a bottle of water, Franklin said.

At Nonno’s Italian Coffee Parlor on East State Street, barista and borough resident Federica Kaplan said women “should be able breast-feed anywhere. It’s a natural thing.”

Outside Starbucks, at the center of town, Jim Philip disagreed.

“I wouldn’t want to be sitting here with a woman feeding her baby at the breast,” said Philip, 77, who has lived in the borough most of his life. “I guess I’m old-fashioned.”