BERLIN — When German legislator Madeleine Henfling headed into the federal state of Thuringia's parliament on Wednesday, the last thing she expected was to be thrown out of the main plenary hall only a short time afterward. Her offense? Bringing along her 6-week-old son.
"I always thought that we were past that point,” Henfling said Friday. “I don't understand what the problem is."
Henfling left the plenary hall amid applause from members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party and of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, according to local media outlets, but her forced departure immediately caused a backlash across Germany. Few countries offer mothers more rights and protection than Germany, but to those who came to Henfling's defense, the incident proved just how much more work there is to do to achieve full equality.
The decision to temporarily eject Henfling from the state parliament also stood in sharp contrast to responses in other legislative chambers where female lawmakers were praised for bringing along their babies. This summer, a Canadian member of Parliament was hailed as a role model after she breast-fed her baby during a debate, following an example previously set by other female legislators in Argentina, Australia, Iceland and other countries. In New Zealand's “baby-friendly” Parliament, the presence of newborn children has already become the norm rather than the exception.
But after Henfling entered the plenary hall Wednesday to participate in a vote, conservative parliamentary president Christian Carius swiftly dismissed her, saying that “babies don't belong in Parliament."
Other members of parliament (MPs), he said, had found ways to avoid having to bring their babies into plenary sessions. “I feel like this is pretty silly, to be honest,” the parliamentary president responded, as lawmakers continued to pressure him to allow Henfling to stay. A senior politician with the left-wing Die Linke party complained that Carius's decision degraded mothers to “second-class MPs.” But Carius stood by his decision, which he said was also made for “child protection reasons” and because of the bright light and loud noises in the plenary hall, as Henfling recalled Friday.
Carius was correct that Thuringia's state parliament isn't exactly the most child-friendly one. Unlike many other federal states in Germany, Thuringia's parliament does not offer child-care options for MPs during votes or speeches, even though they are not allowed to take maternity leave.
"That's why children are allowed into plenary halls during votes in most other state parliaments or are being cared for. It really shouldn't be a problem,” Henfling said.
She said she is weighing whether to complain about the decision to the state's highest court. For now, she will ask her mother or employees to care for her baby during parliamentary votes or speeches, to avoid further disruptions of parliamentary sessions.
"But this isn't a sustainable solution,” she said.
Even if Thuringia's parliamentary president eventually lifts the ban, there's still a long way to go to meet standards now common in other countries, including Iceland, where MP Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir breast-fed her baby while she was addressing Parliament.
Her child “was hungry, and I wasn’t expecting to speak, so I started feeding her,” the mother of three explained at the time.