Florida legislation approves public breast-feeding of children


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In an action that is being hailed by women's and health groups as an important symbolic victory, the Florida Legislature has enacted what is apparently the first state measure guaranteeing women the right to breast-feed their children in public.

By a unanimous vote, the Florida Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that amends the state's statutes on indecent exposure, lewd and lascivious behavior and obscenity to exempt and protect nursing mothers from arrest or harassment by law-enforcement or private security officials.

The bill also endorses breast-feeding as the preferred method of nurturing an infant and condemns "the vicious cycle of embarrassment and ignorance" and "archaic and outdated moral taboos" surrounding the practice.

The measure has been praised by organizations such as La Leche League, a breast-feeding advocacy group, which describes it as the first instance in the nation of a state's codifying support for breast-feeding.

"This bill will take away any ambiguity in the law and makes a very positive statement that the state of Florida encourages the most basic nurturing act in our society," said Elizabeth N. Baldwin, a Miami lawyer who is a member of the legal advisory council of La Leche League.

Ms. Baldwin said that she hoped other states would follow Florida's lead, and added that an ordinance supporting breast-feeding was already in place in Kansas City, Mo.

Lawyers for several national women's-rights groups said that although they were aware of many instances in which women had been told not to nurse their babies in public places, they did not know of any lawsuits dealing with the issue.

In Florida, Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill as soon as he gets it, probably next week. At public hearings last month, the governor's daughter, Rhea Chiles-MacKinnon, nursed her infant son, Mack, as she waited to testify in favor of the bill, which she said would "encourage the healthiest behaviors in our mothers for our babies' sake."

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Miguel de Grandy of Miami, said he decided to introduce the measure after reading a newspaper article about a nursing mother who was harassed by a security guard at a shopping center in the Miami area when she tried to feed her child in an isolated section of the mall.

Since the bill was introduced, several other reports of harassment have come to light. Other women, across Florida and throughout the country, have told of being bothered by police officers or employees as they sought to nurse infants in bus stations, parks, restaurants, hotel lobbies and department stores.

"I'm a traditionalist on a lot of family values issues, and this is a family values issue if there ever was one," Mr. de Grandy, a Republican, said. "This is a very narrowly tailored bill, whose only intention is to respect the rights of women and to provide collateral help in bonding with children."

The bill states that "a mother may breast-feed her baby in any location, public or private" that she has a right to be "irrespective of whether or not the nipple of the mother's breast is covered during or incidental to the breast-feeding."

But some of those opposed to the measure have argued it may be a precursor to a relaxation of Florida's public nudity statutes.

In debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, some legislators expressed concern that Mr. de Grandy's bill might grant legal protection to women to appear topless in public, either on beaches or in nude dance clubs. Nevertheless, the House approved the bill, 107-8, last month.

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