To Poughkeepsie Journal, Re: Public Breastfeeding

On June 19, 2005, the Poughkeepsie Journal published a column, reproduced below. In response, Mark S. Meritt responded with one of dozen of letters. The Journal published a number of them over several days, including an abridged version of Mark’s letter, reproduced here in full.

The Letter

I was disheartened to see Jonna M. Spilbor’s diatribe against public breastfeeding, particularly since it was published on Father’s Day, a day meant to celebrate parenting. I’m sure many will respond with justified dismay. Rather than reiterate arguments many will likely make, I want to get to the heart of the matter.

Everything that has ever lived has succeeded by pursuing what is healthful for it. So often, though, we deny ourselves those things that are good for us and even convince ourselves that they are bad. When people embrace what is healthful for themselves and others, they tap into the processes that foster life on this planet and contribute to fundamentally positive change in the world. When people spend their time and effort railing against what they perceive to be wrong with the world and demanding that their way hold for all, they merely ensure that the objects of their complaints will never go away.

It is well worth pointing out, though, that this applies not only to Spilbor’s criticism of public breastfeeders but to many people’s criticism of people like Spilbor. Whatever side of whatever issue we may be on, the fact remains, as Daniel Quinn so wisely said, “When you defeat a thousand opponents, you still have a thousand opponents. When you change a thousand minds, you have a thousand allies.” Here’s to generating good things for people by meeting them where they stand instead of perpetuating fruitless battles by remaining apart from them.

Sorry, mother’s milk belongs under wraps


If I could be a cop for just one day, I wouldn’t arrest people for minor infractions like rolling through traffic lights at desolate, late-night intersections. Instead, I would drive around in a paddy wagon, filling it up with people who engage in activities that are perfectly legal, but so utterly annoying they ought to be outlawed.

For example, there ought to be a law against making noise while chewing soft foods, holding up a grocery line because you forgot the milk and reclining your seat on trains and planes, unless the person directly behind you is either (1) a stuffed animal or (2) completely invisible.

Yet, it’s simply a fact of life that humans will engage in a long list of legal yet torturous behavior, leaving the rest of us little choice but to scowl and bear it.

I’m here to say unequivocally, wholeheartedly, and with every ounce of maternal instinct washing over my being like a prickly rash — breast-feeding in public should not be one of them.

Bloated bosoms took to the streets of Manhattan en masse recently when 200 lactating women, calling themselves “lactivists” collected their hungry infants and staged a “nurse-in” in front of ABC’s television studios to protest a passing comment made by famed journalist Barbara Walters.

Walters, while chatting with her coffee klatch on her daytime talk show, “The View,” casually mentioned how she felt “uncomfortable” on a recent flight, having been seated next to a woman who was nursing a baby at her seat.

Other than cashing in her first-class ticket, there wasn’t a darn thing Babs could do about it. Federal law, as well as laws in at least 35 states, allow nursing mothers to breast-feed wherever they are otherwise lawfully situated. Restaurants, retail stores and yes, airplane seats included.

Public suckling may be perfectly legal, but should it be?

In New York, for instance, which happens to be a very breast-friendly state, exposure laws make it a crime for a woman to bare that portion of her breast that is “below the top of the areola” unless she is exposed for the purpose of breast-feeding.

The implied expectation of the law is this: The public has every right to be uncomfortable, indignant and even call the police at the sight of a bare-breasted woman basking in her bareness. But once a woman adorns the same bare breast with a 10 pound hungry person, the rest of us must gushingly accommodate her, or get the hell out of the way.

Just because you give a boob a job doesn’t magically change society’s long-ingrained attitudes about public nudity. Why then, does the law — and nursing mothers — expect the rest of us to embrace a stranger’s desire to express milk from her bosom while seated six inches from our burrito?

I know what you’re going to say. A baby’s gotta eat. Sure. But until your child can chew, he doesn’t need to eat with the rest of us.

Look, I’m no prude, but I do think there are certain, perfectly healthy activities that are simply too private for public consumption. Pap smears do a lot of good too, but you won’t catch me having one in Macy’s window.

One “lactivist” in attendance at the protest was quoted as saying, “People don’t want to see it because they feel uncomfortable with it, and they feel uncomfortable with it because they don’t see it.”

Apparently, circular reasoning is the one negative side effect of breast-feeding that “lactivists” don’t talk about much. Personally, I no sooner want to observe a woman breast-feeding her baby in public, than I would want to witness her conceiving her baby in public. Forcing me into becoming an audience to a public showing for which I didn’t buy tickets, is an invasion of my rights — is it not?

Perhaps baby isn’t too happy about it either. I imagine the bond between mother and child, especially during the first year of life, is a beautiful, magical force like none other.

If breast-feeding contributes to that bond, why would a mother want to detract from the experience by doing it while walking the dog or having her hair done? Just because the law allows you to, bonding with baby is not something that should be multitasked.

Jonna M. Spilbor is a Rhinecliff-based attorney. Write her in care of: Poughkeepsie Journal Opinion Page, P.O. Box 1231, Poughkeepsie, NY, 12602-1231. Or in care of:

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