THE XX FILES: Mothers win in health bill

Raquel Ronzone

Look past the mainstream media coverage of President Obama’s health care plan, and you’ll realize that the plan isn’t just tending to the physical state of health. It’s also addressing the interconnected dynamics of family and workplace.

Buried 1,239 pages into the bill recently signed into law is a provision requiring businesses to provide their employees with “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk” and to grant their employees “reasonable break time” — not necessarily paid break time — for nursing as well.

All companies — except those with fewer than 50 employees — are required to abide by it.

Undoubtedly, this marks a victory for nursing mothers for obvious reasons of convenience. 

Working women who want to nurse in private will no longer have to retreat to office bathrooms, and their babies will no longer have to eat their lunches in bathroom stalls. But the health care provision is a milestone for “lactivists,” too. If the provision makes mothers more comfortable with nursing in the workplace, then maybe more mothers would do it. Therefore, more mothers and babies would reap the medical benefits that the lactivists often cite.

And there are many such benefits.

Breast milk is rich in immunity-boosting antibodies and has the right balance of nutrients for developing babies. Breastfed babies have fewer ear infections and respiratory infections and may have heightened protection from allergies, obesity and diabetes.

Breast milk could be important brain food, too. According to one study, children who were breastfed exclusively for the first three months of life or longer scored nearly six points higher on IQ tests at the age of 6 than did children who were not breastfed exclusively.

Nursing mothers, on the other hand, can enjoy long-term preventative effects, such as an earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight and a decreased risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer and osteoporosis.

Perhaps the administration included the provision to encourage breastfeeding so that mothers and babies could enjoy these documented physical advantages. 

And in case those weren’t compelling enough, a recent study found that breastfeeding a child for the first six months of life would prevent nearly 1,000 deaths.

Or maybe the administration wrote it in so that the United States could reach its national goal of increasing the proportion of mothers who breastfeed their babies.

Perhaps the administration included it so that the country could save money. A recent study showed that breastfeeding for the first six months of life would save billions of dollars in health care visits, prescriptions and hospitalizations each year.

Regardless of the exact reason or set of reasons for adding the provision, no one can deny the subtle social commentary that stems from it — even if this mandate is completely focused on health.

The president has not been shy about addressing the societal implications of health care. In the unassumingly titled memorandum, “Respecting the Rights of Hospital Patients to Receive Visitors and to Designate Surrogate Decision Makers for Medical Emergencies,” Obama acknowledges the struggles that gay and lesbian partners have endured to gain visitation rights and make critical choices for their loved ones.

And this provision about breastfeeding rooms is no exception.

Neither Obama, who signed it, nor the United States public, who will be living by it, can ignore that this particular mandate lends itself to conversation about new mothers — and women in general — in the workplace.

Women earn 80 cents for every $1 their male counterparts earn, according to often-cited figures from 2009. Sex discrimination alone could strongly account for this disparity in pay, but child-related responsibilities could explain it as well.

The task of raising a baby often falls disproportionately on women, sometimes forcing working women to pass up career opportunities.

To think that this provision about breastfeeding rooms will close the gender gap is unreasonable, but it’s a step in the right direction for women in the workplace.

With the government’s passage of the provision, employers will have to recognize the 24/7 role of mothers, allow the personal family life and the professional work life to coexist and acknowledge that mothers can be employees and employees can be mothers. In short, the mandate is alleviating some pressure for women who have to choose between their children and their job.

In any case, women should have the opportunity to breastfeed wherever they feel comfortable and whenever their babies need it, whether it’s right before bedtime or during their lunch hour.

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Raquel Ronzone is a junior communication major from Philadelphia.  She can be reached at [email protected]