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Seattle City Council considers ordinance to protect public breastfeeding

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SEATTLE - It's already against Washington state law to discriminate against public breastfeeding, but the Seattle City Council is weighing whether to specifically make it illegal in the city to ask nursing moms to stop, cover up or move to a different location.

A proposed law before the council Monday would add a mother's right to breastfeed her child to other protected civil rights, including race, colour, disability, religion and other categories.

Women's advocates say nursing moms in Seattle continue to be told to stop, cover up or move to a different area while at cafes, stores, restaurants, theatres and other public areas. Seattle's ordinance would make it easier to protect against discrimination, they say, while encouraging moms to continue to breastfeed their babies.

"The bottom line is, it's a health issue for our community," said Councilman Bruce Harrell, who sponsored the bill and believes he has support to pass it. "It's very clear the benefits of breastfeeding. What we want to do is move the needle in terms of community acceptance of breastfeeding by having our local civil office of rights enforcing the law."

"We know that every single day, moms are being discriminated against," said Rachel Schwartz, manager of the advocacy group Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington. "It's not about duplicating the (state) law. It's making it easier to follow through with the law."

Dozens of states have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Seattle's proposed ordinance would make it illegal to ask a nursing mom to stop, cover up or move to another location; it would apply to areas open to the public, including doctor's offices, restaurants, libraries and theatres.

Seattle mom Alice Enevoldsen said it's silly that Seattle needs such a law but she thinks it's important that it passes. It'll be easier for the city to enforce, she said.

"Babies don't have a lot of control over when they're hungry. We need to feed them when they're hungry," said the mom of a 1-year-old. Sometimes that means you're out in a public place, she said, adding: "Just get out of my business. I'm going to feed my baby."

The Seattle Women's Commission lobbied for the bill after hearing from dozens of community and women's groups that mothers were being told to cover up or leave.

"For those who have been discriminated against, it's embarrassing," said Abigail Echo-Hawk with the Seattle Women's Commission. "It can embarrass a woman so much that she may choose to stop breastfeeding."

Minority women in Seattle experience lower breastfeeding rates and higher infant mortality, among other health issues, she said. Eliminating barriers to breastfeeding will help more women continue to nurse, she added.

If passed, Seattle's office of civil rights would enforce public breastfeeding, and this would greatly expand the city's ability to enforce, educate and do public outreach on the issue, Echo-Hawk said.

Since the Washington state law protecting public breastfeeding went into effect in 2009, three mothers have filed complaints with the state Human Rights Commission.

One mother was asked to move to another location while she was breastfeeding her baby in the lobby of her physical therapist in Sultan. She was uncomfortable with the situation so she left the office without keeping her appointment. That business agreed to buy a $5,000 U.S. Savings Bond in the child's name, said Laura Lindstrand, policy analyst state commission.

Two other cases are pending. One complaint was filed by a mother who was told she couldn't breastfeed her baby at a daycare centre in Long Beach. Another was filed by a mother who was breastfeeding while soaking at the Sol Duc Hot Springs in Port Angeles.

"I don't think everybody wants to breastfeed in public, but I think we should all have the ability to do what's best for our babies when it's best for our babies," said Enevoldsen, the Seattle mom.

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