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Breastfeeding protections get a hearing before House lawmakers

Bills lawmakers considered Monday would let nursing moms breastfeed virtually anywhere they choose and establish workplace protections for them so they don't have to pump or nurse in the bathroom.

Patients wait to be seen at the People's Community Clinic in Austin, which provides state-subsidized women's health services to low-income women, in July 2014.

Kim Borchert has breastfed in a lot of public places — including Arlington National Cemetery. Which is why she was stunned when an employee at her local Williamson County swimming pool asked her to stop nursing on the pool's steps. 

“I said, 'I could assure you my breastmilk is a lot cleaner than the pee that hundreds of kids do in this pool every day,'” Borchert recalled to members of the House Business and Industry Committee on Monday, bouncing one of her children on her hip.

The experience spurred Borchert to come testify on House Bill 742, one of a few measures under consideration this session that would provide greater accommodations for nursing mothers.

Besides HB 742, which would allow nursing moms to breastfeed virtually anywhere they want, lawmakers took testimony Monday on House Bill 443, which would require Texas employers to provide a place for nursing moms to breastfeed other than a bathroom, and House Bill 329, which would require state agencies to develop “mother-friendly” workplace policies.

Krisdee Donmoyer, legislative director for the Texas Breastfeeding Coalition, said her group has gained traction among state legislators in recent sessions as more members have become aware of the troubles women endure when trying to nurse. It's a rare issue that enjoys wide bipartisan support thanks to increased awareness of the public health benefits of breastmilk.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from October found Texas had met the federal agency's target of 81.9 percent of mothers ever having breastfed. But it found the state still struggled to implement procedures to help encourage breastfeeding.

Donmoyer said the way Texas’ current breastfeeding rights law is written, it's almost like a recommendation: “You can’t break it.” She said it’s important that HB 742 has teeth so it’s “not just some feel-good, ‘yeah it’s OK if moms nurse'” law.

The current law "doesn’t say ‘don’t do this’ or ‘don’t do that,’” Donmoyer said. “When someone does violate a mother’s right to breastfeed they’re not breaking the law. How crazy is that?”

Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, author of HB 742 and chairwoman of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, said often women who breastfeed in public are embarrassed by business owners or shamed into leaving. Her bill lets breastfeeding women sue for up to $500 in damages for every day their rights were violated.

The legislation “ensures a woman’s right to breastfeed is not violated,” Farrar said.

Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said he authored HB 443 because far too many breastfeeding moms end up nursing in restrooms, which is clearly not “the safest, sanitary way” to feed a child.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I know I would not like my food prepared in the bathroom,” Walle said at the hearing.

A testier exchange occurred when Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, presented her bill, HB 329, that would direct state agencies to develop and submit policies that support breastfeeding to the Department of State Health Services. Only 27 of 238 state worksites are designated as “mother friendly” for breastfeeding moms, according to the state Comptroller’s Office. To qualify as a “mother-friendly” workplace, agencies would need to provide schedule flexibility to breastfeed, an accessible location that’s not a multi-use bathroom, a clean, safe water source and a refrigerator.

“It’s important that we improve our standards related to breastfeeding within our state agencies,” Gonzalez said.

But Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, expressed frustration while listening to testimony on Gonzalez’s bill. He suggested that this was one step away from mandating all state agencies to become breastfeeding friendly and worried smaller agencies that have an all-male staff would have to set up the infrastructure as well.

“I would hope that it would be all of our goals that our agencies allow for breastfeeding,” Gonzalez told Stickland. “I think my goal right now is to pass one bill that says we should have a policy.”

“Part of my frustration is we’re not talking about what we’re really talking about,” Stickland said. “What are we trying to accomplish? Let’s talk about that rather than trying to act like it’s something else.” 

All three bills were left pending in committee. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • While Texas hospitals and birthing centers adopt baby-friendly policies to encourage breastfeeding, community support is still lacking.
  • The Texas House on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a measure that would require public employers to provide accommodations for mothers who need to pump breast milk while at work. 

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Health care 85th Legislative Session