I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘rights’ recently, more specifically human rights. I’ve been thinking about it in relation to breastfeeding, which in Australian law is a right not a privilege. The hungry baby has the right to be fed without delay, and the mother has the right to respond to her baby’s need rather than ignoring them (for whatever period of time.)
When we were back in Australia recently, I got in a bit of hot water on this issue. We were being interviewed at a local tertiary institution, and it was around sleep time for 1 year old Callum, so when he started crying I pulled my top down and fed him. Later on the lecturer reported to me that there’d been a complaint from a man in the class who felt uncomfortable and wanted me to be ‘more discreet’. The lecturer assured me that he was fine with public breastfeeding, but wanted to pass the information along ‘for my consideration’.*
That was the second time I’ve had this kind of experience while back in Australia. When Callum was just two months old, he started crying when we were at the bank so I sat down to feed him. There were no other customers in the bank but the clerk suggested to me that I needed more privacy and when I said I was fine told me that I would make other customers uncomfortable (imaginary though they were.)
Both times, the comments made to me were about others’ comfort, with at least an implicit appeal for me to be more considerate towards them. In other words, I was being asked to give up my right, and my baby’s right, in deference to other people.
Perhaps this idea of giving up rights to accommodate others sounds absurd, but for a Christian, it’s a question that needs answering, because Christians follow Jesus, who gave up everything to live with us, and Christians are exhorted to follow in his example, considering others better than ourselves (even though we have often been pretty awful at doing this, especially at a societal level.) Indeed I had several people suggest to me that to breastfeed in a public place was an un-Christian act, because it was more than likely that someone would be offended, and I was exercising my rights at their expense.
This completely ignores breastfeeding as an act of love and self-giving for a child, who is far more vulnerable than the adult being offended, but what do we make of the argument that Christian mothers ought not avail themselves of their right to breastfeed their children, because it might make some others feel uncomfortable? It’s a question about rights more generally. Is availing yourself of a right inherently selfish, a valuing of the self over others?
I could talk about the Christian tradition of the Imago Dei at this point, and how human rights is a mere recognition of the God-given dignity of human beings. But let me take a more intercultural angle for a second, because I suspect the temptation to see it as selfish is based on our society’s individualism, which the western church has internalised. We don’t see the recognition of human rights as a collective act, or as having broader benefit to society. How might the breastfeeding scenario change if we did? I wonder whether we ought to think of ’rights’ as our society’s way of saying, ‘We think this is a good thing that should be done,’ or, ‘This is such a good thing that it benefits us all and is worth protecting’, or ‘Doing this makes us the kind of people we want to be.’
In the case of breastfeeding, this changes the issue from being about a mother and what is most convenient for her and her baby irrespective of how others feel (“how selfish!”), to a society that wants to care for children, and recognises that those rearing young allow that society to perpetuate and progress itself. In this latter case, the breastfeeding mother becomes one who is doing society a great service – and with her own body no less!
If she were to relinquish that ‘right’ she would be doing a disservice to society. And because these are agreed upon at the collective level, that voice calling her to give up that ‘right’, is at odds with society’s version of itself.
Let me give an analogy.
If we think it’s a right of children in our society to have an education, and a child is not being educated and turns up to school and asks to sit in on class, do we turn that child away for being selfish or grasping? By no means! We recognise that our society agrees that it’s an inherently excellent thing for a child to be educated, and we are grieved that this has not been the case, and would be horrified by the idea that this child should not bring this to our attention, instead continuing in their un-education. We are pleased that this child has given us the chance to remedy this wrong, and be more like the society we aspire to be.
In the same way, we ought to resist telling breastfeeding mothers to give up that right; in fact, it ought to grieve us that they would feel unwelcome in public spaces. The breastfeeding mother who chooses to exercise this right is not being selfish, but simply living out the baseline version of what society considers right. Actually, if she chose to relinquish that right, she could be selling society short, because individual rights are connected to the whole. You could say that her act of breastfeeding not only nourishes her child but society. The law may give her the right, but she chooses to abide by it not only for her own benefit and that of her child, but for the benefit of all.
So, to my fellow breastfeeding sisters who are told to take it elsewhere, I say, do not become weary of exercising your right to breastfeed, because as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.
*I later took this up with the head of the institution whom I know personally, at the advice of a mentor of mine and with the permission of the lecturer. The head saw the issue quite differently to the lecturer, and set about putting steps in place to see that breastfeeding women feel safe and are welcomed on campus.
Image credit: Kate Hansen
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.