Claude Lewis

is a longtime Philadelphia journalist

For decades, a quiet controversy has been brewing across America. The dispute reveals a troublesome double standard concerning mothers breast-feeding in public. We're uncomfortable about it. Sure, sure, the act is sweet and natural - but in public?

Apparently, this is a Jekyll and Hyde culture that wants bare breasts on the screen, but not in the mall. We are now living in the 21st century (I hear), but far too many Americans are languishing in the distant past.

You hear it phrased all sorts of ways: Breast-feeding is not appropriate, even offensive in public; it's highly personal, a private matter between mother and child. Some even call it "disgusting."

The real source of the discomfort is sex. Too many peoples equate breasts with sexuality instead of milk. They fear that allowing public breast-feeding will somehow injure this country's moral fiber. Whatever that is.

The issue has become so heated that 47 states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, have passed legislation to protect mothers who wish to nurse in public. The laws exempt mothers from criminal penalties. (Yes, there used to be severe penalties - but mothers are no longer jailed for doing what comes naturally.)

Business owners don't like it, apparently terrified that if a woman is breast-feeding anywhere near their businesses, no one will come in. They want the right to ask breast-feeding moms to either cover up or move on to a more private setting. But the shopkeepers do so at their own peril. They have to put up with the lactivists' ultimate weapon: the "nurse-in," where a group of nursing moms breast-feed their infants in front of an establishment that directs mothers to feed their babies elsewhere. Bad publicity.

It's a fitful, often silly pitched battle. La Leche League, an international nonprofit organization that fights on behalf of breast-feeding moms, is now 50 years old and stretches to every state and overseas. The league reports so many incidents concerning public breast-feeding that if the problem were not so serious, it would be laughable.

One mother was told that her baby would be less fussy if fed on "real" milk. Another was asked by a security guard to feed her infant in the restroom at a Philadelphia mall. When she protested, the guard said if he received one more complaint from the public, he would call the police - just as he would do if he caught a shoplifter.

This isn't like smoking, which can kill you at 20 paces. This is healthy for everyone directly concerned. Babies consume more nutrients from mother's milk than from formula, at considerably less cost. Most pediatricians say nursing reduces the incidence of a range of infant diseases and disorders, including ear, urinary-tract and bacterial infections.

Even some formula producers tell us that "breast is best." They point to lower incidences of diarrhea, food allergies and diabetes among breast-fed babies. In addition, some studies connect formula feeding with a scourge of modern America: obesity.

Breast-feeding mothers also benefit physically and emotionally by bonding with their young - and such mothers often recover more rapidly after childbirth.

Federal legislation may soon be on the way. Last month, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) reintroduced her Breast-feeding Promotion Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect breast-feeding and provide tax incentives to businesses that establish lactation areas.

Most breast-feeding mothers are not interested in baring themselves in public. They do, however, see the hypocrisy here. They point out that they reveal less skin than is seen on many a television show and on many women at the beach. How is it that women can legally engage in topless dancing in strip clubs, dress scantily on television and prance around in bikinis on the beach - but a mother nursing her baby so naturally offends so many to the core?