Commentary: In the breastfeeding debate, where are the property rights?
The decision made by the management of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Fargo to eject a breastfeeding mother has caused some controversy in the region. That, in turn, has inspired some scrutiny of state law which gives mothres the right to breastfeed in public.
The statute, enshrined in section 23-12-16 of the North Dakota Century Code, is pretty simple. "If the woman acts in a discreet and modest manner, a woman may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, where the woman and child are otherwise authorized to be," it reads.
But for all its simplicity, it's problematic in a couple of ways.
Using words like "discreet" and "modest" make the law all but useless. After all, whose definition of modest should we use?
But the larger issue is that the law grants the right to breastfeed on private property, and that's probably a bridge too far. When I was reading about the controversy from the incident at Chick-fil-A, I wondered why people were invoking this state law at all.
After all, if a private person wants someone removed from their private property, the reason for the removal shouldn't matter.
I should say, at this juncture, that I'm a supporter of breastfeeding. Those who get up in arms because a mother might expose her breast while feeding her child in public are obnoxious and juvenile. I would be critical of any business treating breastfeeding mothers with anything less than respect and deference, and would likely back that criticism with a personal boycott.
Still, I have a problem with the idea of the state instituting a breastfeeding policy for private property.
To illustrate, let's consider a related question of public policy. In other parts of the country women are fighting for the right to go completely topless in public. A suit challenging New Hampshire's prohibition on topless women is currently before that state's Supreme Court.
If women win the right to go topless in public, does that mean private businesses must also allow it? Will places like restaurants and grocery stories, which already implement a universal dress code requiring things like shoes and shirts for all, be forced to allow toplessness too?
Our society's changing mores are creating questions policymakers probably never thought they'd have to answer. Balancing the rights and desires of citizens is complicated stuff.
The easy solution is to lean back on a very traditional concept, that of property rights.
While policymakers will always have to grapple with issues related to behavior in public spaces — in schools, in public parks, in government buildings, etc. — they should leave questions about behavior on private property to the property owners as much as possible.