When Adrianna Brown went out for dinner at an Indianapolis restaurant last summer, she wanted nothing more than a burger and a chance to nurse her baby.
Instead, what she got was a confrontation. An employee told the young mother that her breast-feeding was offensive and gave her three choices: Go to the rest room, return to her car, or leave.
"I flat-out refused them all," said Brown, who was nursing her 2-month-old son at the time. "I had every right to be there . . . and I didn't budge. But when it was all over, I felt really sad -- not just for my child, but for society."
Such attitudes are why an Indianapolis lawmaker is sponsoring a bill that would allow women to nurse their babies in public without fear of violating the state's public indecency law. Since 1994, more than 37 states have approved similar measures.
If it all sounds like a throwback to Victorian times, the bill's sponsor, State Rep. David Orentlicher, assures residents it is not. The author's interest in the subject was ignited after being contacted by constituents who were harassed for discreetly nursing their babies.
"We need to remove every possible social barrier so babies can get the nutrition they need and women can go about their lives," said Orentlicher, a physician and a Democratic legislator. The bill was passed 14 to 0 by the Human Affairs Committee earlier this month and sent to the full House.
At first glance, the need for such a law appears a bit perplexing. Breast-feeding is not illegal. In addition, the practice has been on the upswing for the past three decades, with 70 percent of new mothers at least initiating nursing while in the hospital, although participation drops to 32 percent after six months.
Beyond nutrition, mother's milk has been credited with numerous health benefits, boosting everything from the immune system to IQ. Moreover, breast-feeding has been embraced by dozens of health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. Even environmentalists tout its advantages, citing the savings of 550 million formula cans that would otherwise find their way to U.S. landfills each year.
So why the controversy?
"Because many people hear the word 'breast' and they think it's all about sex, not nourishment," said Kathy McCoy of the Indiana Perinatal Network, a child welfare group that has been lobbying for the proposed law. "They see it as something dirty."
McCoy said she was unaware of anyone being formally charged with lewd behavior. But there are many nursing mothers who, like Brown, have their share of horror stories. At any gathering of new moms, anecdotes of harassment or being relegated to dirty bathrooms are swapped as readily as bedtime tips.
Brown, who is also nursing her 2-year-old son, does not revel in her role as provocateur. She is simply unwilling to "compromise" her children's health just because it offends some people's sensibilities. "Besides, who wants to eat in a toilet?"
Recently, McCoy said she fielded a call from a mother who was told to leave the Indiana Museum of Art, where she was feeding her newborn -- coincidentally, under a painting of the Madonna and child. The charge? It violated the cultural institution's prohibition against food and drink.
In truth, there's nothing illegal about the practice, and mothers may breast-feed wherever they have a right to be, public or private, said Mary Lofton, a spokeswoman for La Leche League International, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based advocacy organization that supports measures such as the Indiana bill. "Actually, we felt the language could be even stronger," Lofton said.
Such legislation does more than exempt one from criminal statutes; it clarifies the fact that women have a right to nurse anywhere. Some states, such as New York, have gone further by defining breast-feeding as a civil right, providing mothers with legal recourse if they are discriminated against.
Unless legislation carries a hefty price tag -- such as requiring employers to furnish breast-feeding rooms at work -- lawmakers rarely encounter stiff resistance. However, two years ago, nearly a dozen mothers staged a "nurse-in" at the Maryland Statehouse to protest a legislative committee's decision to reject a breast-feeding bill because it was superfluous.
When there is opposition, it usually is generational. "Some older folks say it just makes them uncomfortable," said Orentlicher, the father of a 2-year-old. "They're just not used to seeing it . . . no matter how discreet."
But Brown sees the grumbling as more a matter of geography. Mammary glands may be fine for Third World countries -- or the pages of National Geographic -- but certainly not for Indiana.
"How else do you explain to someone objecting to a vessel of nutrients? There's just a real puritanical streak that runs through this state," she said.
Hoosiers, however, do not have the market cornered on moral uprightness, one Chicago couple said.
Carla Balc was visiting the Field Museum with her husband, Ray Griff, and two daughters recently, when 8-month-old Charlotte became hungry. Balc proceeded to breast-feed in the Pawnee Earth Lodge -- a replica of an Indian dwelling -- much to the dismay of a volunteer, who threatened to call security.
"Within two minutes, he advised my wife that it was against the law," Griff said. "We were told that such an activity would never be allowed in such a sacred place. But common sense tells me that the Pawnee would have considered breast-feeding a sacred act in itself."
Nursing mothers are welcome anywhere at the Field, Pat Kremer, a museum spokeswoman, said. The reprimand was the result of an overzealous volunteer, not policy, she said.