Nipping unnecessary legislation in the bud

February 08, 2000|By Susan Reimer

TOMORROW IN Annapolis, the Maryland House of Delegates will hold a hearing on a bill that would make it illegal to breast- feed another woman's baby without the mother's permission. Violators would be subject to a fine of $100 for the first offense and $250 for each subsequent offense.

The hearing may be academic. The senate version of this bill, sponsored by Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., of Anne Arundel County, was unceremoniously killed in committee Friday, likely scuttling it for this session. But Del. Ted Sophocleus, also of Anne Arundel County, plans to press ahead.

When I heard that lawmakers had introduced this legislation, I assumed they were responding to a wave of drive-by breast- feedings. Or a rash of unsolicited breast-feedings. Or a mounting number of unauthorized breast- feedings or the presence of a serial breast-feeder in our midst. But that is not the case.

Actually, it was just that one time.

In October, Sarina Jackson of Laurel arrived at a day care center to collect her 11-week-old son and was told by the proprietor that the mother of another child at the center had picked up Jackson's crying child and breast-fed him to calm him.

Sarina Jackson was stunned, as any of us would be, and then she was frightened. What god-awful disease might have passed through that mother's milk into her son's body? She took him immediately to a hospital to have him tested and has returned to have him checked again because doctors could not guarantee that something like AIDS or hepatitis was not dormant in her child.

The whole experience has caused her understandable anxiety and some expense, and she is still wrangling to get a look at the other mother's medical records to see what if any trouble lurks there.

In the meantime, she approached DeGrange, the grandfather of two 6-month-olds himself, about making this kind of thing, you know, illegal.

"One incident is too many," DeGrange told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week.

"A woman ought to be able to put her child in a day care center without fear that another woman is going to put bodily fluids into the child," Sophocleus said in a telephone interview.

Is there anyone else here who thinks we don't need to legislate against renegade breast-feeding? While we are at it, why not levy criminal penalties against anyone who takes a sip out of my Diet Coke can without my permission?

Why not make it illegal for any-adult-not-the-parent to lick the melting ice cream from a child's cone, or kiss the skinned knee of a crying child? Those acts have that whole bodily fluids business going for them, too.

You know what the problem is, don't you? It is the whole breast thing. Senate committee chairman Walter Baker thought the matter would be better handled in day care regulations. But I think the senators just didn't want to go there.

Lawmakers and other men in authority have long demonstrated their squirmy discomfort with breast-feeding by trying to dictate where and when women are permitted to nurse their children.

Sophocleus said his daughter, mother of his granddaughter, was incredulous at what happened to Sarina Jackson.

I admit I was, too. "Ick!" I think was my immediate response.

However, it didn't occur to me that we needed laws on the books to curb well-meaning but ill- advised acts. If that were the case, I might be facing 25 years to life.

"It is true that the intimate sharing of any bodily fluids can transmit certain infections," says Dr. Peggy Rennels, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland and clinical head of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

But, she says, the solution is to test the other mother for disease.

"This is a hygiene issue," she says. "It is an issue for education, not for legislation. It is like passing a law saying that it is illegal to premasticate a child's food without the parents' permission. Some of this stuff has got to be just common sense."

She tried to sound professorial, but I could tell she thought the whole thing was silly.

Likewise, Elizabeth Baldwin, legal adviser to the La Leche League International, which promotes breast-feeding, says Sarina Jackson has legal redress against both the day care center and the other mother through civil and criminal laws already on the books. If she's got medical bills or lost work time or mental anguish, she can sue.

"If you think you have a problem in Maryland with women running around nursing other people's babies, then maybe you need an educational initiative," Baldwin suggests.

I don't mean to make light of Sarina Jackson's plight. The young mother has a head full of worries as the result of another woman's presumptuous attempt to calm her child.

"I live with this every day and she has suffered no reper- cussions," she said in her testimony before the senate committee, her voice quivering.

But until the legislators can show us that the unauthorized nursing of babies has reached epidemic numbers in Maryland, I don't believe we need a law on the books criminalizing breast- feeding -- or any other well- meaning but ill-advised attempts to ease the anxiety of another human being.

If that were illegal, DeGrange and Sophocleus might be up on charges.

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