Courtroom Breastfeeding Ends in Tears

The mom—not the hungry baby—is doing the crying.

Michigan Judge Robert T. Hentchel's opinion that breastfeeding is inappropriate will meet unyielding opposition throughout the country. (Photo: Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

At a time when the 10 repositories of the nonprofit Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) are calling for donations during an unprecedented breast-milk shortage, Michigan Judge Robert T. Hentchel appears to have reprimanded 32-year-old mother Natalie Hegedus for accessing her personal supply to feed her 5-month-old baby.

“For the last four months,” Pauline Sakamoto, executive director of San Jose, California’s Mothers’ Milk Bank told Today Moms, “everyone has been struggling to find enough milk. The demand has just outpaced our ability to collect the milk.”

Natalie Hegedus knows that demand as only a mother can. When her infant son put in his request for nature’s most nutritious meal, Hegedus did what any loving mother would do, despite being seated in a Michigan courthouse waiting to be called on a boating ticket. Natalie told Michigan’s WOOD TV: “Sitting all the way in the back, I decided I was just going to breastfeed him.”

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“Everything discreet,” she suckled her son in the manner humans have since time immemorial, an option untold mothers across the country wish could be theirs.

Breast milk has been found to be effective in everything from reducing risks of infant respiratory illnesses to boosting immune systems and IQs. Mothers who are physically unable to produce milk (often due to adoption or surgical procedures) are applying for milk bank services in unprecedented numbers.

Unfortunately for parents hoping to withdraw a quart on the way home from work, milk banks, though nonprofit, have no equivalent of a drive-through window. Scant supplies are prioritized for the preemies in neonatal intensive care units and for babies who are recovering from surgery. Parents must obtain a prescription from a doctor, and the milk can be expensive. A Daily Beast story from June 2010 quoted the price for human breast milk at more than $3 an ounce, with an infant needing 30 ounces per day.

With those numbers in mind, Judge Robert T. Hentchel might argue that being “called out” in front of a courtroom for nourishing her child was not too great a price for Natalie Hegedus to pay. But Hegedus reasons, in an account she posted to a Baby Center forum, that breastfeeding is a legal activity, and therefore appropriate for the courtroom. Judge Hentchel, she claims, vocally disagreed, bringing her to tears and leaving her “humiliated.”

Circuit Court Chief Judge Paul Hamre, though not disputing Hegedus’s truthfulness, dismissed the importance of her account. “I just don’t think this is a story,” said Judge Hamre. “This is abuse of the information age. A one-to-two sentence exchange has now turned into a national story.”

Hegedus is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit against Judge Hentchel. She told WOOD TV:

“I breastfeed willingly, wherever and whenever I need to. The fact that a judge and his court clerk thought it was so dirty they needed to reprimand me, in a sense, for doing it in their courtroom was unbelievable to me and inappropriate.”

If Hegedus does pursue legal action, she won’t need to look far to find women who have endured similar harassment.

And if she’s willing to donate any milk that her son is unable to consume, she could have the entire Human Milk Banking Association of North America network championing her cause.

For parents seeking sources of breast milk outside of the HMBANA banking system, start at Milk Share and explore from there to access a wide community of volunteer donors.

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