West Virginia’s Pending Breastfeeding Bills: I Have Good News and I Have Bad News

by Jake Aryeh Marcus Find Sustainable Mothering on Facebook and Jake on Twitter.

West Virginia is one of only three U.S. states (along with Nebraska and Idaho) that has no law whatsoever protecting breastfeeding. So I was glad to read that this month not one but two bills were introduced in the West Virginia Senate concerning breastfeeding.

Unfortunately, one of the bills could result in a law that helps breastfeeding mothers and the other … well, not so much.

West Virginia Senate Bill Number 80 adds “currently breast feeding mother” to the list of people disqualified from jury duty. If I had my choice I would add breastfeeding mothers to those who can be exempt if they choose and who are given accommodations if they wish (as people with physical disabilities are under current West Virginia law) but if this bill results in getting breastfeeding women out of having to serve on juries when their babies need them or they need to empty their engorged breasts, this is a good thing.

Senate Bill Number 82, a public breastfeeding bill, needs some work. The bill has a “note” attached to it that is not actually part of the law. It states:

The purpose of this bill is to declare a child’s right to nurse and making a statement by the Legislature that nursing in a public place is socially acceptable.

I know this looks good (other than the awkward wording and visceral response I have to a statement that nursing in public is “socially acceptable” – just makes me want to scream “I don’t give a damn if it is socially acceptable!”). Breastfeeding advocates love the idea of a child having a right to nurse. I love it too but it is problematic. Why? Because adults have protected civil rights in the U.S. and children, generally speaking, do not. So the U.S. legal system as it is renders the note empty.

But remember, this is not actually part of what the law would say if it passes. What the law would say is:

ARTICLE 1. STATE PUBLIC HEALTH SYSTEM.

§16-1-19. Child’s right to nurse; location where permitted; right protected.

(a) The Legislature finds that breast feeding is an important, basic act of nurturing that is protected in the interests of maternal and child health.

(b) A mother may breast feed a child in any location, public or private, where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be.

Again, looks good right? But if you have read my other writing on the practical impact of public breastfeeding law, you will know what is wrong with this bill. If a store owner tells a woman she must leave because he doesn’t allow breastfeeding in his store or says only women who cover up can breastfeed, what can the mother legally do? Nothing. This bill contains no mechanism to enforce any “right,” either of a child or of the mother. And, repeat after me, “a right without a remedy is no right at all.”

So what can you do if you are in West Virginia? Have a look at this interview with state Senator Dan Foster, one of the sponsors of both of these bills. He gets it. He understands the importance of breastfeeding, both the health benefits and the economic benefits to the state.

According to this report, Foster anticipates having more difficulty getting the public breastfeeding bill passed than the bill disqualifying breastfeeding women from jury duty. The news report also erroneously states that women would be given a choice of pump accommodations on jury duty. That is actually not in the bill and should be.

So if you are in West Virginia, contact state Senator Dan Foster and tell him what you think of these bills. Let him know similar public breastfeeding laws in other states leave women unprotected because they have no enforcement mechanism. If he says he doesn’t think he can get such a bill passed, pledge your support for a strong law protecting a civil right to breastfeed in public. Tell him you are willing to make phone calls to other state Senators and help him get a strong bill passed.

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