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Rallying for Right to Nurse in Public

Protest: Responding to complaints, about 70 mothers and their breast-feeding children gather at a Santa Monica mall to raise awareness of the law.

July 18, 2002|SANDRA MURILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Thornton got quite a surprise with his lunch Wednesday at the Santa Monica Place mall.

There he was, munching on his steak sandwich as an unusually high number of infants around him suckled their mother's breasts.

Thornton sat some distance away from the scene, not quite understanding the sudden abundance of nursing children in the food court.

"I thought, wow, L.A. has changed a lot since the last time I've been here," said Thornton, a 23-year-old shoe salesman from Phoenix.

The women were a contingent of about 70 mothers and a few fathers from all over Los Angeles County who had gathered at the mall's food court to make a statement about a woman's legal right to breast-feed in public. The California Women's Law Center and the Breastfeeding Task Force of Greater Los Angeles held the "nurse-in" because they've been fielding numerous complaints from women who have been asked to stop nursing in public places.

"People don't know the law and employers aren't educating their people," said Nancy Solomon, an attorney at the Women's Law Center. In California, a woman has the right to breast-feed anywhere she and her child are present, except at someone's private home, Solomon said. It is illegal, Solomon added, to ask a nursing mother to cover herself or to ask her to go somewhere else.

As Abbe Dotson, 27, of El Segundo walked near the mall's food court last month while nursing her daughter, Ruby Jane, a security guard asked Dotson to cover herself.

"He said he'd been getting complaints," Dotson said, as she fed Ruby Jane. "He actually said that I was showing too much cleavage."

Dotson was soon put in touch with the Women's Law Center and subsequently the "nurse-in" was planned.

"I'm taking care of my daughter in nourishing her and feeding her and I'm being made to feel obscene for it," Dotson said.

The women at the nurse-in cradled their children in their arms and quietly chatted. Andrea Young, 25, wore a white tank top with the words "Breastfeeding is not a Crime" emblazoned in red.

Photographers and camera crews showed up to capture the event on film. No formal speeches or picket signs were scheduled. This was just a gathering of mothers doing what nature intended, participants said. The protest was so subtle that some mall patrons had no idea what was going on.

"People usually don't know she's nursing, they just think she's hugging me," said Jennifer Hoff, 31, who has been breast-feeding her daughter Chloe for 21 months and Chloe's older sister, Allie, for six years. In explanation, Hoff said her daughter has asked, "But Mom, how will I get all my vitamins?"

Those patrons who did notice the profusion of babies wondered what was up.

"All these babies! What do I do to get one?" asked one woman.

Most patrons stared for a few seconds and moved on.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," said Pete Defoe, 41, of Glendale. "If a kid gets hungry, you can't tell the kid no."

Others were more supportive.

"I'm all for it!" shouted one man as he rushed through the mall's exit. "Go team!"

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