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Public breastfeeding rights in U.S.: 48 states down, 2 to go

Any day now Virginia's governor is expected to sign a bill that will protect public breastfeeding. Its advocates are celebrating the victory, which they say is long overdue, and it means South Dakota and Idaho will be the last two states in the U.S. with no public breastfeeding laws.

Virginia was one of only 3 states without laws to protect breastfeeding in public

Breastfeeding mothers in Virginia are about to celebrate a victory because the state is finally set to pass a law that enshrines their right to breastfeed in public. It was one of three states in the U.S. that didn't afford legal protection, Idaho and South Dakota are now the remaining two. (iStock)

Breastfeeding in public in the United States is one state closer to being protected by law nationwide thanks to a bill that is on its way to the governor's desk in Virginia.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to sign the bill into law any day after the legislature unanimously passed it earlier this month. Once he does, Idaho and South Dakota will be the only holdouts when it comes to writing laws that specifically state women can breastfeed in public.

Supporters of the latest law are declaring a victory. "It's a big one," says Rebecca Geller, a Virginia mother, and lawyer, who helped spearhead the effort. "The fact that it not only passed, but passed unanimously, is huge."

The fact that it not only passed, but passed unanimously, is huge.- Rebecca Geller, Virginia mother

Virginia has come a long way since shooting down a similar bill 10 years ago, says Geller, but the fact that it was one of the last states in the country to take this step says a lot.

"Virginia has had challenges as far as supporting women's rights in different things and I wouldn't say that it has a record on being a leader of women's rights," says Geller. "We were behind the curve on this kind of an issue."

Geller got involved last summer after breastfeeding in a store and getting the impression from staff that there was about to be a confrontation. Her daughter finished eating before it got to that point.

She says she was "astounded" to learn when she did her research that her right to breastfeed in public wasn't protected under Virginia law.

South Dakota, Idaho lag behind

The current law in Virginia allows women to breastfeed on state-owned property, but there is nothing to say women can do it freely in a store, restaurant or other public place. Businesses owners can easily tell a woman to stop or kick her out and she has no legal recourse. That will change when the new law goes into effect July 1.

For many years breastfeeding laws in the U.S. mostly just exempted breastfeeding from indecency laws, which didn't mean that women had a legally protected right to do it in public.
A mother breastfeeds her child during a rally to raise support for breastfeeding near the steps of New York City Hall last August. Mothers also celebrated the 20th anniversary of New York's law allowing women to breastfeed legally in public. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

By 2007, 47 states had written specific laws enshrining a woman's right to breastfeed either in public or in the workplace and to support the practice. They vary in their scope. California, for example, requires employers to provide break time and a room for women to breastfeed in if they desire one. In Maryland, products related to breastfeeding are exempt from sales tax.

South Dakota and Idaho are lagging behind. The only law on the books in Idaho says that women can get out of jury duty if they are breastfeeding and in South Dakota, there's an exemption from indecency laws.

Kori Penkert, of the Idaho Breastfeeding Law Coalition, says the fight for a law in her state has been "frustrating and confusing."

"It's kind of been a brick wall," the mother of three says. "Everybody's done it, why are we so behind?"

Penkert says the two main challenges are that some in the state don't think a law is necessary, and others are uncomfortable with the idea of public breastfeeding. There are some strong conservative areas in Idaho, she noted.

Penkert and others advocating for a new law finally, after much lobbying, got an Idaho lawmaker to sponsor a bill that is now in the works.

Opposition baffles advocates

Virginia's success is giving Penkert some hope, but she knows it may not be easy to get a law passed in her state because there remains opposition.

"It just amazes me, something that seems so basic to me and something that I watch other states fly right through, I'm just flabbergasted honestly," she says.

According to Infact Canada, a group dedicated to protecting breastfeeding, women in Canada have a right to do it under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and under provincial human rights codes which prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex.

While the federal charter and codes in each province don't all specifically state that breastfeeding in public is allowed, those are the laws that advocates point to when making their case or when conflicts arise. Ontario and British Columbia are the two provinces that specifically legislate protection for breastfeeding mothers in their human rights codes.

Despite the protection that advocates believe is afforded by the charter and human rights codes, situations arise. Last fall, for example, Babies 'R' Us offered an apology to a mother who was asked not to breastfeed inside the store in public view. 

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