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Is it an indecent act to breast feed in public?

January 26, 1999
By: Natalia Ona
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Laura Van Slyke was threatened with jail last year for breast feeding her child.

In January 1998, she took her six-month-old baby with her to the St. Louis city courthouse to take care of a traffic ticket. Inside the courtroom, she breast fed her child until one of the bailiffs got her attention.

She was told by the bailiff that she couldn't breast feed her daughter there, and was threatened with contempt of court. "She told me that I had to leave the room or she would put me and my baby in jail," said Van Slyke. "I told her that I was just feeding my baby and that I was a proud nursing mother."

Van Slyke, like many other mothers who nurse their children, said she didn't know she could be arrested under indecency laws for doing something she considers natural.

Those laws would no longer interfere if Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, acheives his goal of making breast feeding legal in public.

"It's really quite simple," Dougherty said. "We should be doing everything we can in this state to encourage breast feeding ... To me, we have no business calling what is the most natural thing in the world somehow indecent, so that law enforcement officials or security guards have the right to tell you to go in a back room or a closet, or go in a bathroom. It is ridiculous and I'd like to see that stop."

The House Public Health Committee on Tuesday heard testimony for Dougherty's bill. Although there was no opposition voiced during the hearing, Connie Cierpiot, R-Independence, raised concern about a law that wouldn't include anything about the mother's discretion.

She criticized a Florida statute that allows the practice, "even if the nipple is exposed during breast feeding." She said that would go too far.

Cierpiot added that she didn't realize this was real problem. "I'm all for breast feeding, but I guess I just haven't seen this as huge issue until now."

There aren't any Missouri statutes currently on the books that explicitly prohibit women from breast feeding in public. However, as Dougherty said at the hearing, there are local authorities who use indecency laws to go after the mothers.

The hearing room Tuesday was full of moms interested in seeing the bill made into law.

Erin O'Reilly, a nurse of 16 years experience, was one of five mothers who testified on behalf of the plan. A member of the Breast Feeding Coalition, O'Reilly centered her testimony on the benefits of breast feeding.

"Breast feeding is the first and the best way to inmunize your children," said Oreilly. She said nursing children makes them "healthier, happier, smarter and better-looking."

The American Civil Liberties Union is also supporting the plan.

"Mothers who need to breast feed in public do not threaten or harm anybody else," said Deborah Jacobs, ACLU executive director for eastern Missouri. "Anyone who is offended by seeing a woman breast feed should look away."