Court Apologizes After Tossing Out Breastfeeding Mom

For women who choose to nurse their infants, sleepless nights might be just the beginning of resulting hardships, thanks to folks who think that breastfeeding belongs hidden behind closed doors. That’s the hard lesson new mom Danielle Gendron learned when a judicial marshal ushered her out of a Connecticut courtroom while she was discreetly nursing her 3-month-old son.

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“That's never happened to me, so I wasn't sure she was speaking to me at first, so I kind of looked around, and she was like, ‘Get out,’” Gendron, 25, tells WTNH about the female marshal. Gendron was removed from family court on Wednesday as she waited to testify in a case. “It almost makes you feel ashamed, which is terrible, because you shouldn't feel that way,” she said.

But Connecticut is one of 45 states with a provision allowing women to breastfeed in public. After WTNH ran its story, the court backtracked, and apologized to Gendron's sister, who had called the court to complain, according to the TV station. A court spokesperson tells Yahoo Shine in an email that the marshal “was in error.” As a result, she says, “The marshal was instructed on the law, as were judicial marshals statewide.”

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While the authorities in this case were quick to admit wrongdoing, similar incidents are far from rare. That’s due to a combination of issues, say breastfeeding advocates: vague state laws with no enforcement provisions, and extremely stubborn perceptions that nursing in public is somehow dirty, sexual or otherwise indecent.

“Mostly it’s a matter of breastfeeding awareness,” Marsha Walker, executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy, tells Yahoo Shine. “We need to help the public understand that it’s a means of feeding the baby — it’s not indecent exposure; it’s not going to pollute the pool at the local Y,” she says, referring to a fear she heard just recently. The bottom line, she says, is that breastfeeding used to be done only in private, and people are still not used to seeing it in public.

Diane Spatz, professor of perinatal nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Yahoo Shine that it's “a constant battle.” Spatz shared a powerful anecdote: When a student of hers recently created “Breastfeeding welcome here” stickers and attempted to distribute them to businesses in downtown Philadelphia, only four of 20 shop owners agreed to display them. “You have to be a strong woman,” Spatz says, “to fight that pressure not to nurse.”

In August, a woman in Knoxville, Tennessee, was asked by management to stop nursing her 5-month-old in a Chick-fil-A restaurant, sparking a nurse-in with 25 moms. Another nurse-in was staged in the Baltimore-Washington International Airport after an incident on an American Airlines flight. Other moms asked to stop breastfeeding have included a Belgian woman and her diplomat husband in a White Plains country club, and Texas mom Lucy Eades, attempting to nurse at a local gym.

Then, in October, Missouri mom Laura Trickle made national headlines when she was found to be in contempt of court for bringing her breastfeeding son with her to jury duty. She explained that she did not have childcare. The judge in that case had said he was bound by state law, which does not exempt breastfeeding moms.

That case, like the latest one, involves courtroom practices. And that, Philadelphia attorney and national breastfeeding law expert Jake Marcus tells Yahoo Shine, puts incidents in their very own category. “A courtroom is not necessarily a public accommodation, and the law [allowing for public breastfeeding] doesn’t necessarily apply,” she explains. “That’s because courtrooms are fiefdoms run by the judges. If a judge wants everyone to wear blue, then everyone must wear blue.”

Commendably, she adds, the Connecticut court opted to include itself in the state law. “The court is acknowledging it had a rogue court marshal,” she says, but she adds that Gendron might still want to consider filing a complaint with the Human Relations Commission.

In general, Marcus finds there is a huge lack of awareness around breastfeeding; no shifting of public opinion in the matter of doing it in public; and a chronic ignorance of the state laws. But laws themselves are not necessarily enough, she notes, as only a handful of states — including Connecticut, as well as Vermont and New Jersey — include enforcement provisions, meaning that, in most states, there’s nothing holding various authorities accountable for their actions against breastfeeding moms. And that, she says, adds up to trouble. 

“Harassment is a major problem,” she notes. “Not so much because the numbers are high, but because of the chilling effect it has on women who want to breastfeed in public. It acts as a deterrent.”

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