Got milk? Pennsylvania's nursing moms will soon be able to give theirs up without fear of getting arrested.
Eleven years after the first bill was introduced to protect breast-feeding in public, the state House voted unanimously yesterday to allow it. The measure, already passed by the Senate, is expected to be signed by Gov. Rendell.
"I think this is a big step. It's very important for women to know that they can breast-feed where they need to and when," said Sen. Connie Williams, a Democrat from Montgomery County, who introduced the bill in February.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said breast-feeding laws such as the one passed in Pennsylvania will make it easier for mothers to nurse, which is healthier for babies.
In children, breast milk protects against infectious disease, obesity, sudden infant death syndrome, and diabetes, among other illnesses. Breast-feeding mothers recover more quickly from giving birth and have a lower incidence of breast and ovarian cancers. Yet, despite its numerous health benefits, public breast-feeding remains contentious.
"When we were dealing with this in the Senate, the sort of rank-and-file problem is what I call the ick factor," said Jake Marcus, legal director at Birth Without Boundaries, an advocacy group that supports mother's rights.
Pennsylvania is one of the last states to pass a law that protects breast-feeding in public. Philadelphia has had such a law on its books since 1997.
Jewels Cusaac breast-feeds her daughter, 13-month-old Ava. "I think it's ridiculous that it's even an issue," said Cusaac, sitting with her daughter in Rittenhouse Square yesterday afternoon. "Breast-feeding is the most natural thing a person can do. I think it would be pretty bold of someone to come up and say, 'I'd prefer you to not do that here.' "
Ruth Lawrence, a neonatologist who wrote the academy's policy statement supporting breast-feeding, said that without supportive legislation, mothers may wean their children too soon or not nurse at all.
The gold standard for nursing is to breast-feed a child until the age of 6 months, public health experts say.
"In a lot of states, people have used their uncomfortable feelings about public exposure of body parts to see this as a sexual act. But this is a normal, healthy act," said Karla Shepard Rubinger, executive director of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, an academic, peer-reviewed journal.
She said while most states have a law about nursing in public, few have enforcement provisions. "If a woman who breast-feeds gets run out of Wal-Mart, that's the end of it. What can you do?" she asked.
In February, Leigh Bellini tried to breast-feed her son on a bench at a Reading-area mall, but was asked by security guards to cover her baby's head with a blanket, nurse him in the restroom, or leave.
In May, she rallied with about 100 other women with children in support of the new law in Harrisburg.
"The good thing is that it's bringing public awareness to this issue," Bellini said. "I hope it gives other mothers courage to fight harassment."
Mothers with young infants often breast-feed every two hours, so in many cases they're forced to feed the child while out in public, Lawrence said. "No woman who has a young baby heads to the mall to breast-feed," she said. "They're there because they have to be."
Some advocates said the bill was still not strong enough. According to Marcus, the wording of the Pennsylvania law stops short of the protection provided by some other states - including Delaware and New Jersey.
"As far as breast-feeding laws go, this is one of the weakest in the country," she said.
Marcus worked with a House member to amend the bill with a provision that would have made it easier for mothers to sue establishments charged with harassing them. The provision was later removed.
"Legislators were not willing to go that far," Williams said.
Williams said she next wanted to work on legislation that would make the workplace friendlier to breast-feeding. "In law firms, if you have an associate with her own office, she can close the door," Williams said, "but her secretary can't."
Read details of the law here and elsewhere at http://go.philly.com/health
Contact staff writer Erika Gebel at 215-854-2999 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Inquirer staff writers Katie Stuhldreher and John Sullivan contributed to this article.