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Bill would protect nursing mothers

Last August, Jessica Blair breast-fed her son at a Berea McDonald's and was asked by a manager to stop.

Blair thought that a Kentucky law that prohibits interfering with a breast-feeding woman would protect her. But it didn't.

A bill before the Kentucky legislature seeks to remedy that problem by making the offense punishable by fine.

Senate Bill 29 would add a fine of $100 for a first offense and $200 for a second offense of interfering with a breast-feeding woman.

The bill is one of the few health-related issues before the legislature this year. Advocates for health organizations say they are advocating for Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to raise the cigarette tax because it will reduce smoking rates. They also are waiting to see a proposal by Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, to enact a smoke-free law.

But their biggest concern is that legislators will cut Medicaid, a program that provides health care to the very poor.

"We're very concerned about the state budget, the shortfall and its impact on Medicaid," said Sarah Nicholson, a lobbyist with the Kentucky Hospital Association.

Supporters hope the breast-feeding bill will encourage more Kentucky women to nurse their babies. Numerous studies have shown that babies who are breast-fed have measurable health advantages over formula-fed babies. Kentucky has one of the lowest breast-feeding rates in the nation.

Adding fines to the breast-feeding law may make women feel more comfortable breast-feeding in public, said Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, who sponsored the original law. At that time, he couldn't get support for penalties.

"It's probably time to put some teeth into the law," Buford said.

In June 2007, Brooke Ryan, a Lexington woman, was asked by a waitress to stop breast-feeding at the Nicholasville Road Applebee's. The incident sparked protests and drew national attention.

Mike Scanlon, president of Thomas & King, which owns the Applebee's Ryan went to, isn't sure that adding fines will make much difference for other breast-feeding moms. What happened to Ryan was "not a normal experience that breast-feeding women have at Applebee's," he said.

A fine won't change the fact that businesses with good intentions will treat breast-feeding women well and others won't, he said.

"It's not going to improve or unimprove the lot of breast-feeding women and children," Scanlon said.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington. Kerr did not respond to requests to discuss the legislation.

Through a spokeswoman, Senate President Williams declined to comment on the bill's future, saying he was focused on the state budget.

If the bill makes it to the House, Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville and chairman of the Health and Welfare committee, expects it to be passed by his committee easily and be approved by the full House.

"It's a shame we even have to come up with legislation like this," Burch said. "It's a natural function for a woman to breast-feed a baby."

Jessica Blair thinks the law will help other mothers. "It's pretty traumatizing for you and your baby to be verbally assaulted in public," said Blair, who was known as Jessica Denny at the time of the McDonald's incident.

Restaurants won't want to incur a fine, even if it is only $100, she said. "They also don't want to look bad," she said.