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'This is a culture issue, not a government issue': North Dakota House declines to update breastfeeding law

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

BISMARCK — North Dakota House lawmakers rejected a proposed update to the state's breastfeeding law Tuesday, Feb. 12.

House Bill 1330 failed in a 61-32 vote. It would have removed language requiring women to breastfeed in a "discreet and modest manner" and would have made it an infraction to prohibit women from breastfeeding, a violation that would have carried a maximum $1,000 fine.

Bismarck Republican Rep. Karen Karls, who said she breastfed her four children, said the existing law already protects breastfeeding women with subjective language that's not meant "for prosecution." She called the proposed penalty "troubling" and said it would be difficult to enforce.

"This is a culture issue, not a government issue," Karls said. "Let's not put the responsibility of changing the culture's response to breastfeeding solely on private business owners."

Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones said she opposed the penalty but didn't have a chance to amend it out when it was considered by a House committee. Still, she supported the bill, arguing that current state law against indecent exposure allows women to be topless but not to "indiscreetly" breastfeed, rendering the language "ridiculous" and "subjective."

Breastfeeding advocates, along with several moms and their babies, held a Capitol press conference Monday to support the law change.

The bill wasn't a response to an incident at a Fargo Chick-fil-A last year in which the restaurant's owner apologized after telling a breastfeeding mother to leave because she declined to cover her breast, said the legislation's chief backer, Fargo Democratic Rep. Gretchen Dobervich.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing women to breastfeed in public and private spaces, 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 have removed.

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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