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Milking it
House members have whipped themselves into a tizzy over one of the healthiest things that a mother can do for her child: Breast-feed

CALL IT LEGISLATIVE déjá vu. After all, we have seen the same scene — indeed, with the same cast of characters — played out on Beacon Hill before. On one side, you have women’s advocacy groups and progressive activists spearheading legislation dealing with some aspect of human sexuality. On the other side, you have conservative Catholic politicians — led by House Speaker Tom Finneran — complicating the process. The result? Even the most benign bill becomes embroiled in controversy.

Some examples: for three sessions in a row, the state senate has passed a bill that would make it legal for municipalities to extend health-care benefits to the domestic partners of their gay employees. The House, under Finneran’s leadership, refuses to act on the bill even though a majority of state reps support the measure. There’s also the House bill that would repeal an archaic Massachusetts statute making it a crime (punishable by two years in jail) to advertise any information on abortion services, which has been relegated to a "study." The United States Supreme Court has struck down similar statutes in other states because they violate constitutional protections, but on Beacon Hill a bill intended to do the same has been stymied. And then there’s legislation that would wipe out antiquated sex laws banning everything but traditional intercourse between a man and a woman. For 30 years, conservative legislators have successfully thwarted the effort. The latest such pieces of legislation, House Bills 847 and 2203, are now languishing in committee.

In the meantime, it took six years to pass the Massachusetts contraceptives-coverage law, which requires private health plans to pay for prescription contraceptives as they do for any other prescription drug, such as Viagra. Signed into law last spring, the measure soared through the Senate for two sessions straight — only to die in the House. The only reason it advanced last January, State House observers believe, is because the Speaker was forced to mollify members growing increasingly critical of his autocratic style.

This time, though, the Finneran brigade has outdone itself. It’s hard to imagine House members whipping themselves into a tizzy over one of the healthiest things that a mother can do for her child: breast-feed. But they have. A Beacon Hill bill filed on January 3, 2001, would exempt all women who nurse their babies in public from the state’s indecent-exposure statutes. Technically, it is not a crime for women to breast-feed in public, as no Massachusetts law defines the act as illegal. No woman has ever been charged with lewd and lascivious behavior for breast-feeding in public. Yet scores of women routinely suffer harassment and eviction from public places. House Bill 2749, as it’s officially known, would exempt women who breast-feed in public from charges of "open and gross," or lewd, behavior. Instead, they’re "entitled to any and all ... places of public accommodation, within the Commonwealth, to which other persons are entitled." To its proponents, the legislation epitomizes simplicity. It comes at no cost to the state, yet sends a clear message to breast-feeding mothers and those who would try to prevent them from feeding their babies in public. State Representative Ellen Story (D-Amherst), one of the bill’s sponsors, describes its underlying message: "We would be saying, ‘Breast-feeding is wonderful. We encourage you.’"

Evidently, conservative House members — in particular, David Donnelly, who just left his West Roxbury state-rep seat after being appointed District Court judge in May — harbor reservations about the idea of women publicly breast-feeding. The Joint Committee on the Judiciary, on which Donnelly served as House chair alongside Senator Robert Creedon (D-Brockton), tinkered with the legislation by adding an age limit. The amended version, known as House Bill 4401, would prevent the arrest of women "breast-feeding a child less than three years of age." (The legislation is currently before the House Rules Committee, which has until July 31 to schedule it for debate on the House floor.) So rather than promote breast-feeding wholeheartedly, the amendment makes an ambiguous statement. If it’s not indecent exposure to breast-feed a child under age three in public, does that mean it is indecent to publicly breast-feed a child over three? Are women not permitted to breast-feed their toddlers in public? Would mothers have to carry around their children’s birth certificates while out and about?

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Issue Date: June 13 - 20, 2002
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