Mothers Rally to Back Breast-Feeding Rights

Women nurse their children at BWI Airport in support of a family that was kicked off a flight in Vermont. Delta says it regrets the incident.
Women nurse their children at BWI Airport in support of a family that was kicked off a flight in Vermont. Delta says it regrets the incident. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Karen Gral knows how difficult it is to travel with small children: standing in long lines with squirming toddlers, dealing with new security rules that prohibit liquids -- including some baby foods -- and lugging strollers, car seats and diaper bags through airports.

For her, the finish line is sitting on the airplane and breast-feeding her hungry and worn-out 16-month-old to sleep.

So when the Alexandria mother of two heard that a family was kicked off a Delta Air Lines flight last month because the mother refused to cover her baby with a blanket while breast-feeding, Gral decided to join 70 people at Reagan National Airport yesterday for a "nurse-in" in front of the Delta ticket counter. Similar protests were held at more than 30 airports around the country, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where 62 people gathered in support of Arlington native Emily Gillette.

"Breast-feeding is the most natural thing in the world. What was Emily supposed to do? Not feed her child? Not give her child comfort?" said Gral, while nursing her son, Garrett, who was wearing a white onesie that read, "I'm a Breast Man."

Delta has said it regrets the incident with Gillette, which took place aboard one of its contract carriers, Freedom Airlines.

"Delta Air Lines fully supports a mother's right to breast-feed on board our aircraft, and we were very disappointed in the decision to move Ms. Gillette from the flight," said Gina Laughlin, a Delta spokeswoman.

According to Gillette's attorney, Elizabeth A. Boepple, the family boarded a flight from Burlington, Vt., to New York on Oct. 13 after a two-hour delay. On board, Emily began to nurse her toddler daughter in her window seat before takeoff. Gillette's husband, Brad, sat in the aisle seat to provide his wife and their daughter some privacy.

A flight attendant handed Emily Gillette a blanket and said, "You need to cover up. You are offending me," according to Boepple.

Gillette refused, saying, "No, thank you. I will not put a blanket on top of my child's head," according to Boepple.

Moments later, the Gillettes were escorted off the plane by a ticket agent and put on a flight the next day.

The Gillettes have filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

Many showed up at National to push airlines to adopt more supportive policies for nursing mothers and to encourage federal legislation that protects breast-feeding in public and pumping milk in the workplace.

"This is not a protest. We want to show people that breast-feeding is completely normal," said Robin Abadia, 31, who took time off from work to attend the event with her husband and two children.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), reintroduced legislation to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect breast-feeding in public, provide tax incentives for businesses that establish private lactation areas in workplaces, and allow tax deductions for breast-feeding equipment.

A "nurse-in" was staged in front of ABC studios in New York last year after "The View" co-host Barbara Walters made what many considered to be disparaging remarks about a woman breast-feeding next to her on a plane trip.

Many pediatricians recommend that nursing mothers breast-feed their children on the ascent and descent of flights, to help open children's ear canals as cabin pressure changes with altitude. The World Health Organization recommends that infants be exclusively breast-fed until they are at least 6 months old.

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