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Woman upset after London airport forces her to dump breast milk — all four gallons of it

A sign directs travelers to a security checkpoint at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Aviation officials at London’s Heathrow Airport forced a nursing mother to dump nearly four gallons of breast milk, including a sizable amount that was frozen, the woman says.

But Jessica Coakley Martinez didn’t just cry over it. She penned an outraged open letter on Facebook that has resonated with working mothers everywhere.

“I normally would not post something this personal, but I do not remember the last time I felt so justly upset,” she writes.

In her posting, she documents the travails of breastfeeding while holding down a job that requires her to be away from her infant on a 15-day trip. Breast feeding, she says, is so important to her and her child’s well-being that she takes extraordinary steps to nurse without interfering with her work. She says she felt like a failure when, realizing she might not be able to keep up the pace, she had to use formula. Then she recounts what happened when she tried to bring her “giant block of breast milk” back home.

“You made me dump nearly 500oz of breastmilk in the trash,” she writes in the Facebook posting. “You made me dump out nearly two weeks worth of food for my son.”

The limit for liquids in carry-on luggage is 100 milliliters, or approximately 3.4 ounces, according to regulations posted on Heathrow’s Web site. Larger amounts must go in checked luggage, it says. That’s stricter than the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which says baby formula, breast milk, and juice in quantities larger than 3.4 ounces can go in carry-on luggage.  The TSA also advises passengers to tell them at the beginning of the screening process that they’re carrying baby formula, breast milk, or juice in excess of 3.4 ounces.

Coakley Martinez’s open letter to Heathrow security says she became tearful and “irate” because she felt as if no one in security was interested in compromise. She writes that she was willing to let go of the liquid milk, but tried to make the case that she should have been allowed to carry on more than 300 ounces of frozen milk because it was no longer in liquid form. But officials would not relent.

“Rules and procedures at airport security are rarely universally enforced because similar to police officers, a significant aspect of your job is public trust and engagement, which includes using your judgment regarding appropriate enforcement in complex situations,” she says.

Heaven knows why aviation security wouldn’t let her leave the checkpoint and return so that she could stow the offending breast milk in her checked luggage, as she says she was willing to do. Or why they confiscated her stash as a “non-compliant item,” she writes.

That time a woman said she was told to pump breast milk in the pet area at Dulles International Airport

“I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen people attempt to bring on a unique souvenir that is deemed a potential weapon and they’re sent back out to check it so they can keep it. It happens. A lot,” she writes. She also talks about all the times she was allowed to evade normal security screening, or that others were let by.

To be fair, aviation security officials often have to deal with special pleading. No one likes the onerous and occasionally absurd screening regulations that come with the age of terrorism, and more than a few people think they are special and somehow above following them. (MY penknife isn’t a threat. MY belt is just a belt. MY liquids are really just hair conditioner. Etc.) It’s also true that sometimes there are lapses in procedures.

And, yes, it’s just breast milk, and, yes, this is an absurdity that Monty Python would have loved to mock. But the context here is that all of us now inhabit a crazy world in which the bad guys have found ingenious ways to harm others with items that appear to be utterly harmless.

Clearly, Coakley Martinez took great pains to build up an ample supply of breast milk. But as precious it was, it’s also hard to understand why she would not have ensured that she complied with the rules. Would anyone try to lug four gallons of Coca Cola onto an aircraft these days? Frozen or not?

To her credit, Coakley Martinez acknowledged that she should have looked up the guidelines, which state that “a reasonable amount” of breast milk can be carried in the cabin when the mother is traveling with her child.

That said, it’s also hard to imagine why the airport security officials didn’t work with her to find a compromise. The science is settled on why breast feeding is important for an infant’s health. Women shouldn’t have to feel like criminals for nursing –even if they’re inside a court of law, as happened last week. And women are right to fight for acceptance of the practice everywhere, and to be militant when others try to shame them or prevent them from doing it.

Judge tells breast-feeding woman, “You need to cover up.”

So it’s easy to sympathize with Coakley Martinez’s predicament. If the rules on airport security are too stringent, then let’s change them — but it’s also worthwhile to see things from the perspective of the men and women who try to enforce them.