The Risk of Overzealous Lactivism

Like many in the breastfeeding community, I was outraged when I saw recent reports about a new ordinance in a suburb of Atlanta that prohibited public breastfeeding of a child over two.  The issue quickly went viral in breastfeeding circles, with well-meaning “lactivists” quickly springing into action, writing a petition, calling the municipality, and organizing a nurse-in, which gained international publicity.  What amazed me so much about the whole incident was that all of this happened so fast, not only before any attempted enforcement, but before the ordinance was even made available to the public!

As someone with a research interest in breastfeeding and the law, when I read the first news reports, I went to Forest Park, Georgia’s municipal website to try to find the actual law.  Not only was the actual law not available on the website, but the minutes of the city council meeting that enacted it were not even posted yet.  After a great deal of digging, I was eventually able to locate a copy of the ordinance from someone who was in attendance at the city council meeting (the text of the law is now available for download online, though it has still not been made available by the municipality).

When I read the ordinance, I was surprised to discover that contrary to how it was presented in the media, this is not, on its face, a law banning breastfeeding.  What I discovered, instead, is a general public nudity ordinance, that four pages in, contains a line exempting from coverage “any female person exposing a breast in the process of breastfeeding an infant under the age of two (2) years.”   While I disagree with the age limit for the exemption, this is not a law taking a bold stand against extended nursing.  It is not even clear under the language of this law that the amount of breast that is typically shown in the process of nursing any child, even a child over two, would be enough to be considered “exposure.”  Although this ordinance may theoretically cover a nursing child over two, we have no evidence that Forest Park ever initially intended to enforce the law in this way before the loophole was brought to light through lactivist activity.

What we have here, then, is a rather vague nudity ordinance that went out of its way to exempt the majority of public breastfeeding situations from coverage.  There is no indication from the face of the law that the city council ever initially intended to take a stand on extended nursing.  In fact, according an individual at the council meeting, it “was NOT read at the meeting, nor was it distributed. Instead, the mayor simply read from the agenda and then the council voted on it. I am fairly certain the only person who ever actually read the ordinance is John Parker, the city manager. “

Until the breastfeeding community jumped in and escalated this situation, there was no evidence, whatsoever, that the indirect prohibition against nursing a child over two contained in this ordinance was due to anything more than misinformation about breastfeeding and sloppy drafting.  By immediately springing into action before gathering all of the relevant facts, breastfeeding advocates lost a valuable education opportunity.

I think we all need to take a deep breath and slow down.  There is no doubt that in the days since this ordinance was passed, some of the officials in Forest Park have reportedly made some pretty inflammatory remarks about extended nursing—if they didn’t intend to make a stand about extended nursing before, after all of this attention, boy howdy do they now!  I fear that by jumping into action so quickly, well-meaning breastfeeding advocates have participated in creating a Booby Trap that has the potential to backfire on us all.

The mission of Best for Babes, to mainstream breastfeeding by turning our culture from one that is breastfeeding-averse to breastfeeding-friendly, should be the core mission of all who advocate breastfeeding.  None of us would be doing this if we weren’t passionate, and I completely understand the fire in the belly that news like that out of Forest Park ignites, but message matters.  To be most effective, we need to look critically at whether the advocacy strategies we employ are real, effective instruments for lasting social change.  When we become militant with our message and fail to celebrate small victories, we marginalize breastfeeding.

When we align breastfeeding with alternative lifestyles, we alienate mothers and babies.  I love the solidarity of nursing mothers coming together to support one another in a nurse-in.  But a gathering of over a hundred women with signs in front of city hall is not just a nurse-in, it is a protest.  No matter how peaceful a protest, and all reports indicate that the protest in Forest Park was carried out in a very calm and respectful manner, the underlying message of any protest is that the activity being argued for is not the norm.   How many pregnant women, watching the news coverage of the Forest Park nurse-in, cemented their decisions not to nurse, lest they be mistaken as “one of those people?”  When we lose credibility, we marginalize breastfeeding.

The Surgeon General recently released a Call to Action, launching a national breastfeeding campaign that includes 20 specific recommendations for broad social action to help breastfeeding become “the easy choice, the default choice” in the U.S.   Nowhere does it list the kinds of activities employed by the well-intentioned and passionate lactivists in the wake of Forest Park’s ordinance.  This was not an oversight.  When we assume malicious intentions and fire indiscriminately, seeking to promote an agenda rather than attract to a cause, we marginalize breastfeeding.

After the Forest Park nurse-in, the city council announced it would reconsider its public nudity ordinance.  This is fantastic news.  But, without more focus on how our actions are perceived by those outside the breastfeeding community, we run the very real risk of winning the battle, but losing the war.  Make no mistake, there is a fight here and the fight component is key.  As Best for Babes has identified, the hallmark of every great cause with broad-based popular support is the fight against an inarguable big bad wolf that needs to be felled because it harms all people.  That is what attracts people to breastfeeding as a bona fide cause.   If we continue to take shots at groups of people who are just doing what cultural norms dictate, and if we continue to do it in the style of the angry mob, we will not elevate breastfeeding from a marginalized movement to a great cause.  Message matters.

Image credit: dmolsen

Kori Martin, JD, LLLL lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and three breastfed children.   In addition to leading a local La Leche League group, Kori serves as the Legal Professional Liaison for LLL of Texas, writes on topics related to breastfeeding and the law, and is a member of her state and local breastfeeding coalitions.  A graduate with honors from The University of Texas School of Law, instead of practicing as an attorney, Kori works passionately to help mothers and babies overcome barriers to breastfeeding success.

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63 Comments | Last revised on 06/06/2011

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