Breastfeeding bill excuses moms from jury duty, honors ailing Missouri legislator


After being wheeled in, Missouri Rep. Rory Ellinger stands to acknowledge friends and colleagues who came to watch the signing of Missouri House Bill 1320 (which protects the rights of nursing mothers) on Thursday in University City, Mo. (AP Photo/ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Laurie Skrivan)

Sometimes lawmakers do the right thing.

Missouri legislators didn’t tarry when it came to a bill, sponsored by one of Missouri’s most liberal legislators, that would excuse breastfeeding moms from jury duty and protect them from public indecency charges when nursing or pumping milk.

HB 1320 passed unanimously, with a vote of 150-0 in the state’s House late last week and 31-0 in the Senate on Monday. In an usual move, the Senate voted on the bill the same day it cleared a public hearing.

The reason for such haste was to honor the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rory Ellinger, a Democrat from University City representing the state’s 86th District. The two-term legislator, who withdrew from running for reelection in March, has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer. Although many of his fellow legislators have disagreed with his liberal views, they wanted him to see the bill’s success.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, traveled to University City on Thursday for the bill’s signing. The event gave fellow lawmakers a chance to pay homage to Ellinger, who attended in a wheelchair and did not speak. His wife, Linda Locke, read his statement, which included a “plea to set aside personal differences and ideological conflicts.” The audience gave Ellinger two standing ovations.

In his March 3 statement announcing he was withdrawing from reelection, Ellinger addressed the issue of being in the minority in a legislature controlled by Republicans.

“People often have asked me whether they can make a difference as one single legislative vote, or as a member of the minority party,” he wrote. “I tell them my vote has mattered.”

He then gave examples of when a single vote mattered: “In 2013 had just a very few votes changed, HB 253 would be in place today, bankrupting public education. Had a single vote changed, today we would criminalize law enforcement officers who enforced federal laws regarding machine guns. Had one vote changed we would institutionalize conspiracy theories regarding sharia law and the United Nations. When votes on legislation have razor thin margins, each individual vote becomes more, not less important.”

Ellinger’s breastfeeding bill is fairly non-controversial, but much needed. A Lee’s Summit, Mo., mother, Laura Trickle, faced contempt of court charges last fall when she asked to be excused from jury duty because she was breastfeeding her son. She told the Kansas City Star that she was “an accidental activist” and was pleased to see the state’s support of nursing mothers.

The new law, which goes into effect in August, would require a physician’s note to excuse the nursing mother. It also protects a woman who breastfeeds or pumps milk in public from charges of indecent exposure, obscenity or sexual conduct, and prohibits any local government from enacting an ordinance to restrict breastfeeding.

At least 15 other states have laws that excuse nursing mothers from jury duty, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: California, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Virginia.

The health benefits of breastfeeding include a reduced risk of childhood infections and conditions like obesity, asthma and diabetes later in life. Breastfeeding also saves money: Formula may cost $1,500 or more for the first year of a baby’s life, and health care costs are cut if there are fewer doctors’ visits.

As a mom who got almost militant about nursing my children, I appreciate the new law. And I hope that Rep. Ellinger realizes what a difference he’s made for future Missourians with the passage of this bill.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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