Can breast-feeding activists have it both ways on a plane?

By | October 9th, 2012

One of the hot discussions this summer centered around the rights of mothers to nurse their babies on a plane.

Breast-feeding advocates weighed in on the issue in the comments section, and in passionate emails to yours truly, insisting there ought to be no discussion at all. Lactating passengers, they proclaimed, should be able to feed their babies wherever and whenever they wanted — even in flight.

Talk of covering up and modesty belonged in a previous century, thanks very much. As one “lactivist” asked in a strongly-worded comment, “Would you rather eat in the toilet, or with a blanket over your head?”

Most of the men who joined the discussion (and there were a few) seemed constrained and a little uncomfortable saying anything beyond that they supported a mother’s right to feed her child and that it might be nice for her to do so in private, in consideration of other passengers.

They did not dare challenge what some commenters referred to as the “breastapo.”

But one brave man did ask a question that deserves to be answered, both by the breast-feeders and by air travelers in general.

“In this age of pervasive camera phones, where virtually everything is captured digitally, would a passenger who photographed a woman not being discreet while breast-feeding on a flight be guilty of violating her privacy — or is taking her image fair game?” asked Dave Mack.

I’m not going to mention where Mack lives or what he does for a living, because I don’t want him to be the victim of a “nurse-in” for asking such a politically incorrect question.

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But still — can a breastfeeding mom expose herself on a plane and, at the same time, have the right to not be photographed?

I put that question to the leading expert on photography rights, Carlos Miller. He runs a blog called Photography is Not a Crime.

A commercial aircraft is considered private property, he says. An airline has the right to create its own policy regarding photography, “but the policy should be stated upon take-off or on the ticket or in its in-flight magazine,” he says.

Miller says no domestic airline has a policy expressly forbidding photography on its planes.

“So if a woman chooses to breast-feed while sitting on a plane, she really doesn’t have a legal argument that she has the right to breastfeed without being photographed,” he says.

As a practical matter and as a professional photographer, Miller says he wouldn’t snap photographs of a nursing mom without first asking for permission. But he wouldn’t be required to, and any passenger with a camera phone could conceivably take a shot of a woman’s exposed breast if they wanted to, and without any legal repercussions.

By the way, taking photos on planes is a serious topic and deserves more attention than it’s received. Back in 2008, I wrote about Marilyn Parver, a passenger on a JetBlue flight who taped an altercation between the flight crew and a traveler, and was then asked by a flight attendant to delete the footage, but refused.

I think most passengers are supportive of a woman’s right to feed her baby anywhere, including on an aircraft. A vast majority of air travelers believe that it should be done discreetly. To not cover up is just bad table manners, kind of like (though not the same as) chewing with your mouth open or not using a fork.

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One of the most surprising comments I got about breast-feeding passengers came from a female traveler who doesn’t have kids. She says the lactivists are misguided in their efforts to normalize the act of exposing themselves in-flight and in public.

“I fully support a woman’s right to breast-feed so long as she covers her breast in respect of other travelers’ sensibilities,” she told me.

She asked me to not mention her name. That whole nurse-in thing, again.

“Personally, I wouldn’t want to expose my breasts to strangers and really can’t understand what drives that urge,” she adds. “Where do you draw the line? Should women athletes be allowed to strip to their bras, or even bare breasts, if they become overheated? Why should only lactating females be afforded that freedom?”

Good point. If lactating women don’t cover up, then what’s to stop other women from taking off their shirts on a flight? Or anywhere?

I think this is one of those times when you can’t have it both ways. Nursing women cover up not only for their own privacy, but also out of respect for other passengers, a majority of whom would prefer not to see their lactating breasts on a plane. In order to undo that social standard, you would have to erase the entire 19th century, something that’s above this consumer advocate’s pay grade.

Sure, it’s a hassle to put your baby under a blanket. But I’d hate to be the flight attendant that has to get between a teen-age shutterbug and a lactating lawyer who believes her privacy has been violated.

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That’s a dispute no one would want to mediate.

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