Analysis of New York State’s 1994 Right-to-Breast-Feed Law (Civ R 79-e)
By Isaac Evans-Frantz, CLC
Twenty years ago this month, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, father of the state’s current governor, signed the first civil rights law in the country to protect women’s right to breastfeed in public (Civ R 79-e). It aimed to promote breastfeeding as a healthy choice.
Last semester I wrote a paper (link to full text at bottom) about this law for an Introduction to Public Affairs graduate course taught by Professor Nicole Marwell at Baruch College, at the City University of New York. As a newly Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC), I was curious how this law came to be. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the law’s passage, it is worth looking at its history.
Various concerns lay behind the law — women’s rights, infant rights, and so on, though the main concerns aired in the discussion of the bill were public health and conservative family values.
The bill enjoyed wide bipartisan support. Awareness of the problems behind the bill was generated by women who insisted on breastfeeding their babies when they were hungry, wherever they happened to be. The media, interest groups, communities of experts and policy entrepreneurs helped move the topic onto the legislative agenda and ultimately pass the law.
The law was a victory celebrated around the country; however, its impact has been tempered by both deep-seated cultural norms against public breastfeeding and lack of media coverage of the law.
The law was a response to a number of events in which women were harassed for breastfeeding in public spaces, at a time of growing consensus on the health benefits of breastfeeding. Passing a law championing breastfeeding was much more politically feasible than committing resources to breastfeeding or taking on infant formula companies. In actuality, women always have had the right to breastfeed in public, and in 1984 New York State passed a law clarifying that breastfeeding was not indecent exposure. The 1994 law simply affirmed the civil right to breastfeed in public.
One of the most surprising things to me in my research was how difficult it was to find information about the law’s history. (I had to consult staff at several libraries to find the introduction to the bill and letters in support of it.)
Given its historic significance as the first state civil rights law to name breastfeeding as a protected activity, the law received scant media attention. The New York Times did not even dedicate a staff journalist to cover the story, and the short Associated Press story it did run contained a major error: The article claimed the law authorized fines and imprisonment for those who violated it. In actuality, the law did neither.
Other policies have had a bigger impact on people’s decision to breastfeed in New York. The WIC program, and a state mandate that every hospital have a lactation coordinator*, have helped raise state breastfeeding initiation rates to around 80 percent. The big challenges now, from a public health perspective, are breastfeeding duration and exclusivity. Fortunately, groups like the NYC Breastfeeding Leadership Council, the New York State Breastfeeding Coalition, and Baby-Friendly USA, are working to make it easier for people to breastfeed.
I work as a sexual and reproductive health educator at a Federally Qualified Health Center. Recently I was speaking to a co-worker, who said that when she was pregnant, she learned about her right to breastfeed in public from a New York City Department of Health (DOH) pamphlet citing the 1994 civil rights law. This anecdote made me realize how changing laws is just one step. People need to know about it — and not just pregnant women who happen to get a DOH pamphlet! When people work together, we can change laws, but for a law to impact society, people need to know about it, and use it. This 20th anniversary is an excellent opportunity for some widespread public education on the right to breastfeed everywhere.
*Edited since original post: The WIC program and a state mandate that every hospital have a lactation coordinator which may or may not be a CLC.