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Breast-Feeding Could Provide Jury Exemption

Va. Assembly Passes Bill

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page B01

RICHMOND, Feb. 14 -- When Pamela Greene told a Fairfax County judge she was breast-feeding her 4-month-old daughter last year, she expected to be excused from jury duty.

Instead, the judge informed Greene that breast-feeding wouldn't be a problem: The court would take plenty of breaks.

Pamela Greene spent much of her jury service on a toilet pumping breast milk for daughter Annika. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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What followed was a two-day ordeal in which Greene said she spent every spare moment sitting on a toilet in the jury room restroom pumping breast milk. It was hard to get access to a refrigerator to keep the milk cold, and the bathroom felt unsanitary, she said.

"The entire trial was this endless cycle of testimony, pump, testimony, pump," she said. "It was really very tough."

Inspired by Greene's experience, Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) this year sponsored a bill that would release breast-feeding mothers from jury service. The measure passed the Senate on Monday and has been approved by the House of Delegates. A spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said he supports the idea, which means the bill is almost certain to become law.

Virginia would be the seventh state to exempt breast-feeding mothers from jury duty. Neither Maryland nor the District provides such an automatic exemption.

Women nationwide are lobbying to expand and strengthen laws that make it easier to breast-feed. Thirty-four states have laws of some kind that affirm the right of mothers to breast-feed, many of them passed in the past 10 years, according to La Leche League International, an advocacy organization.

Proponents of such legislation argue that breast milk is medically superior to formula for babies and that laws that remove barriers to feeding and pumping encourage women to take up the practice. This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics reconfirmed the health benefits and issued a statement urging the development of "governmental policies and legislation that are supportive of a mother's choice to breastfeed."

Virginia provides jury duty exemptions for -- among others -- those over age 70, mariners taking part in maritime service and those who are "necessarily and personally responsible" for a child under age 16 or a disabled person during court hours. The existence of these provisions led several lawmakers to vote against the new measure as unnecessary.

"The courts can do this already," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), one of four senators who opposed the bill. "The more people you exempt, the harder you find it becomes to get a jury panel."

Greene said she was told Virginia's law did not apply to her because she had gone back to her job at a federal office and was therefore not taking care of her daughter, Annika, during the work day. Pumping at work was far easier than at the courthouse, she said, because her office provided a quiet, clean venue and she could follow her own routine. The trial "was such an additional barrier to the difficulties of breast-feeding and working," she said.

Serving on juries presents special problems for breast-feeding mothers, said Kathye Schattner, president of the Kentucky-based group Family Friendly Jury Duty, which encourages jury exemptions for mothers.

"It's something you can't just do automatically like a machine," Schattner said. "Most people are not wanting to shirk their civic duty. They wonder: Can't they just defer it a couple of years until their children are in school?"

Besides jury duty exemptions, advocacy organizations urge passage of laws such as one approved in Maryland in 2003, which prohibit businesses from telling women they cannot breast-feed. Virginia's version specifies that women can breast-feed in government buildings, but it does not mention private establishments. Virginia also exempts breast-feeding mothers from indecent exposure laws.

"The laws are important so that a mother can help educate the people who might ask her to leave a place," said Mary Hurt, a spokeswoman for La Leche League International.

"At least if there's a law, she can point to it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company