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North Dakota House to consider updating breastfeeding law

Democratic state Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, left, pitches her bill updating the state's breast-feeding law during Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Breastfeeding advocates urged North Dakota lawmakers to update what they described as a subjective state law that lacks any deterrents for improperly preventing moms from feeding their child Monday, Feb. 11.

House Bill 1330 would remove requirements that women breastfeed in a “discreet and modest manner” while in public, language that bill proponents said is up to each person's interpretation. It would also make it an infraction, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine, to prohibit women from breastfeeding.

The Capitol press conference, which was attended by several babies and their mothers, came before the House is expected to vote on the bill in the coming days. It received a "do not pass" recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee, and only about a fifth of the chamber's 94 members are women.

West Fargo Republican Rep. Kim Koppelman, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel felt the law already strikes the right "balance" between the rights of women and business owners.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Fargo Democratic Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, said the legislation is not a response to an incident at a Fargo Chick-fil-A last year in which the restaurant’s proprietor told a breastfeeding mother to leave after she declined to cover her breast. The restaurant owner later apologized.

But some bill supporters told reporters their own stories of being asked to move to other rooms while breastfeeding. Alyse Erbele, a certified lactation consultant in Bismarck, said the bill could help remove any stigma around the practice, which proponents said carries health benefits for babies and their mothers.

“It is time that we stop shaming mothers for breastfeeding,” said Kristie Wolff, executive director of the North Dakota Women’s Network.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for roughly the first six months of their lives, but only a quarter meet that standard, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Karen Ehrens, a registered dietitian based in Bismarck, said North Dakota was one of the last states to pass a breastfeeding protection law in 2009.

“Here we are in 2019, and there’s still progress to be made,” she said. “It shouldn’t continue that North Dakota law dictates when, where and how mothers feed their babies.”

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing women to breastfeed in public and private, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Dakota is one of 30 states that exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws, the group said, but it requires women to do it "discreetly," a mandate Dobervich's bill would remove.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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