The city of Seattle is considering legislation that would make it illegal to require breast-feeding women to cover up or to suggest they move to another location.

Share story

As a social worker specializing in infant and maternal care, Camie Goldhammer was convinced of the health benefits of breast-feeding babies. When she had her own children and sometimes nursed in public, she was undeterred by the few people who suggested she should move somewhere private.

“I have family support, education, but those kind of negative experiences could deter someone who didn’t have that kind of support,” she said.

Now the city of Seattle is considering legislation that would make it illegal to require breast-feeding women to cover up or to suggest they move to another location.

The Seattle City Council Committee on Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology will consider the bill at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle City Hall.

Washington state added legal protections for breast-feeding mothers in 2009, but only three complaints have been filed under the law. Seattle advocates said they weren’t hearing complaints from nursing women locally but say the state law isn’t widely known. The state law protects nursing mothers from discrimination and exempts them from public indecency laws.

The new federal health-care act also contains protections for breast-feeding mothers. It requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a private place other than a bathroom for workers to nurse or pump breast milk.

“We want to improve customer service for the women of Seattle,” said Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. “Instead of going to the state, they will be able to get their complaints investigated at a local level.”

Under the proposed ordinance, mothers can breast-feed at a time, place and in the manner they choose. They do not have to go to a restroom. They do not have to cover the baby with a blanket or towel. The owner, manager or employee of a store, restaurant or other public place cannot request that the mother move or leave.

Nelson said that individuals who feel their rights have been violated would be able to file a charge with the Civil Rights Office, which would investigate the complaint and could assess a fine.

Nelson said her office also is able to publicize the ordinance and the rights of nursing mothers.

“If a woman is in a restaurant and is told she can’t breast-feed, she can say, ‘Yes I can. It’s the law,’ ” Nelson said.

Mothers around the country organized rallies at Target stores in December to protest a Texas woman being asked to use a fitting room to nurse or risk being cited for indecent exposure.

Moms also held a “nurse-in” outside of Facebook offices — including Seattle’s — in February, to protest the company’s removal of breast-feeding photos from the website.

Supporters of the Seattle legislation say that breast-feeding is a public-health issue. Breast-fed babies have lower rates of infant mortality, obesity, diabetes, ear infections, diarrhea and asthma, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, who last year issued a call to action to support breast-feeding.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2010 estimated that the nation would save $13 billion a year in health care and other costs if 90 percent of U.S. babies were exclusively breast-fed for six months.

City Council member Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Civil Rights Committee, said that since the legislation was proposed last month, he’s heard from skeptical constituents questioning whether this is the best use of the city’s time.

“My response is what’s more important than someone’s health?” Harrell said.

Harrell said he’s also concerned about racial disparities in breast-feeding.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that while 75 percent of U.S. babies start out breast-feeding, only 13 percent are exclusively breast-fed at the end of six months. The rates are particularly low for Native-American and African-American infants, the study concluded.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, a member of the Seattle Women’s Commission, said the rates of infant mortality in Seattle are two to three times as great for Native-American and African-American babies as for whites. She said that as the commission explored how to address this racial disparity, the possible link between infant mortality and the low rates of breast-feeding emerged. Supporting the breast-feeding legislation is one way to support women of color, she said.

“We want women who choose to breast-feed to have every opportunity to do so,” she said.

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.