Breastfeeding in public is a human rights issue
Wednesday, Jan 12, 2011 06:00 am
It has been a weekend of hypocrisy in the province of Quebec. A woman in Montreal was asked to a leave a children’s clothing store for breastfeeding her five-month-old son. That this is even an issue in this modern day in which the benefits of nursing have been repeatedly expounded upon and discrimination based on sex is not nearly as notable as it has been in the past is proof we still, as a society, have a long way to go.
Shannon Smith’s ordeal was recounted extensively, both in her own blog and in a weekend story in The Globe and Mail. Simply, Smith, 36, was in the children’s clothing store Orchestra in a Montreal mall and started nursing her son. Employees then asked her and another nursing woman to leave. There is a room in the mall for women to breastfeed children, but Smith said, and rightfully so, she didn’t feel she had to be confined to a room. Now Orchestra, which only Monday apologized to Smith, will be the subject of a “nurse-in” organized on Facebook with 100 confirmed guests.
That the protest was organized on Facebook is an oddity. In the first few years of the social website’s existence, women who posted pictures of themselves or other women nursing children often found the Facebook censors rejected their photos and, in some cases, closed down their accounts.
There is no national law on breastfeeding in public, nor should there be a need for one. Instances such as this are cases of discrimination based on gender, given that only women get pregnant and only women can nurse children. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear, discrimination on the basis of sex is illegal. Human Rights decisions in Ontario and B.C. have created common law on public nursing by taking up complaints of women who were asked or forced to leave some area because they were breastfeeding their children.
The law in Alberta has been silent. The only applicable section is in an interpretive bulletin on workplace rights of pregnant women and what constitutes discrimination, found on the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC) website. The booklet states that, in most cases, it is contrary to the Alberta Human Rights Act to “deny women the decision to breastfeed in public or at work or refuse to accommodate breastfeeding.” The B.C. policy states women can breastfeed “in a public area” and asking women to cover up or breastfeed elsewhere is considered a discriminatory act.
This is not about the beauty, innocence or naturalness of breastfeeding. This is about freedom of choice and discrimination based on gender, familiar topics when it comes to pregnancy and its polarizing opposite abortion. There are scores of health benefits to nursing and women who choose to nurse should subsequently be able to feed their children without social impediment. It is a given that most women are modest in their efforts, using blankets or special covers to hide the act. But even if they didn’t, those uncomfortable with it should simply look elsewhere. No one is going to ask a woman bottle-feeding her child to move or cover up for the sake of modesty.
Legislation shouldn’t be necessary but protecting individuals against discrimination is. If the law is the only mechanism by which individuals can be held accountable for humiliating a woman who nurses her child, then let’s put a solid one in place so that everyone who can’t handle it knows what they cannot do. Maybe that will change some attitudes.