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Breastfeeding Decision

04/01/08 7:55AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) Commentator Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, who says that a recent case involving a woman who was removed from a Delta flight for nursing her child, has made her particularly grateful to Vermont lawmakers.

(HANNA) Every so often, a little case that starts in Vermont ends up making a big difference across the country.  I suspect that a recent decision by the Vermont Human Rights Commission will be one of those cases.

The case began in November of 2006 when Emily Gillette, her husband and their daughter finally boarded a delayed Delta Airlines flight back to their home in Santa Fe. It was after 10 pm. Gillette was sitting in the second to the last row, next to the window, when she began nursing her daughter.  Nursing really helps little ones better handle the changes in air pressure.  

The flight attendant gave Gillette a blanket and asked her to cover up. Gillette said no - she was fine.  A few minutes later, the family was removed from the plane.  Gillette felt humiliated and left the plane in tears.  After getting no response from the airline, she decided to take action.

While at least 39 states have laws protecting women who nurse in public, Vermont's law is important in two respects.  First, it doesn't contain language that the mother must be "discreet" when nursing.  

This is important because it doesn't give people like the flight attendant, who may not approve of breastfeeding, the power to decide whose discreet and who isn't.  

Even more critical, Vermont's law charges the Human Rights Commission to follow-up on complaints.  In most other states, women who are discriminated against have to hire an attorney and then file their own lawsuit, which can be very difficult to do, especially since these cases aren't about money, but principle.  

In Vermont, it's the Human Rights Commission that does the investigation. If it finds that there are reasonable grounds that a woman was discriminated against, as it did in Gillette's case, it then works with the parties to settle.  As part of that settlement, Freedom Airlines, which operated the Delta flight, can agree to institute a breastfeeding policy. Gillette says that's what she really wants, so no other woman has to go through what she did.

If after six months the parties don't settle, then the state can bring a suit against the airline for violating Gillette's rights.   

Gillette's case is the first of its kind against an airline, although a quick trip through the blogosphere suggests that she's hardly alone in what she went through.  The difference is that Gillette had the determination to enforce her rights and that Vermont made it relatively easy to do.  Vermont lawmakers particularly deserve credit for understanding that laws protecting women are meaningless if there isn't an efficient way to enforce them.

Given the international publicity that this case continues to generate, I suspect that Gillette's case will make a difference for other moms, and that should make all Vermonters proud.
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