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Ironically, at a time when the significant short and long-term health benefits of breastfeeding are becoming widely recognized, women around the country are facing both rhetorical and direct attacks on their decision to breastfeed. While every major medical authority is working tirelessly to encourage women to breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months (with continued breastfeeding for at least the first year), each week news of a mother being asked to leave a store, a bus, an airplane or a museum because they are feeding their child in public surfaces.  Something is out of sync.

In fact, the very scientific and policy gains for breastfeeding may be fueling the backlash against this most common sense, natural act. Over the last year alone, breastfeeding women have won new protections and recognition including the new “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” rules for hourly and federal workers as mandated under the Affordable Care Act; new requirements issued by the Department of Health & Human Services that direct insurance companies to cover the full cost of breastfeeding support and supplies (rather than charging women co-pays for these services); the release of the Surgeon General’s “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding", and the IRS’ decision to make breast pumps and supplies tax deductible. These decisions make it more affordable and easier for those mothers to met their personal breastfeeding goals.

Yet these positive gains for women have been criticized by national media and legislative figures as an example of the “nanny state” at work and a threat to our economic recovery.  For example, earlier this year Congresswoman Michele Bachmann decried the IRS’ decision to allow women to make breast pumps tax deductible as “the new definition of a nanny state.” Several days later, former Governor Sarah Palin mocked First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to encourage breastfeeding as a way to help prevent childhood obesity.  Just last month, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly suggested that the new rules directing health insurance companies to cover the costs for breastfeeding supplies would prevent employers from creating new jobs.

Attacks on breastfeeding make no sense from a health or economic level.  The data are clear. If 90% of women were to breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months, the country would stand to save $13 billion per year in health care costs and prevent approximately 900 deaths.  American businesses who have implemented lactation support programs have reported health care savings, reduced absenteeism and increase employee satisfaction and retention.

We need to be vigilant in our efforts to respond to attacks against breastfeeding rights.  This isn’t an issue that just concerns mothers or would-be mothers.  At their core, attempts to eliminate supports for breastfeeding are an attack a woman’s right and capacity to perform multiple roles as mother, breadwinner and member of society.  In 2011, 91 years after many women won the right to vote, no woman should be forced to choose among these roles.

This post is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.


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