Can breast-feeding activists have it both ways on a plane?

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By Christopher Elliott

One of the hot discussions this summer centered around the rights of mothers to nurse their babies on a plane. Breast-feeding advocates weighed in on the issue in the comments section, and in passionate emails to yours truly, insisting there ought to be no discussion at all.

Lactating passengers, they proclaimed, should be able to feed their babies wherever and whenever they wanted — even in flight.

Talk of covering up and modesty belonged in a previous century, thanks very much. As one “lactivist” asked in a strongly-worded comment, “Would you rather eat in the toilet, or with a blanket over your head?”

Most of the men who joined the discussion (and there were a few) seemed constrained and a little uncomfortable. They said that anything beyond that they supported a mother’s right to feed her child. It might be nice for her to do so in private, in consideration of other passengers.

They did not dare challenge what some commenters referred to as the “breastapo.”

Photographing breastfeeding moms on flights

“But one brave man, Dave Mack, posed a question. It deserves answers from both breastfeeding mothers and air travelers in general. In this age of pervasive camera phones capturing virtually everything digitally, would a passenger be guilty of violating a woman’s privacy by photographing her while not being discreet in breastfeeding on a flight. Is taking her image fair game?”

I’m not going to mention where Mack lives or what he does for a living. I don’t want him to be the victim of a “nurse-in” for asking such a politically incorrect question.

But still — can a breastfeeding mom expose herself on a plane and, at the same time, have the right to not be photographed?

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I put that question to the leading expert on photography rights, Carlos Miller. He runs a blog called Photography is Not a Crime.

A commercial aircraft is considered private property, he says. An airline has the right to create its own policy regarding photography. “The policy should be stated upon take-off or on the ticket or in its in-flight magazine,” he says.

Miller says no domestic airline has a policy expressly forbidding photography on its planes.

“So if a woman chooses to breast-feed while sitting on a plane, she really doesn’t have a legal argument that she has the right to breastfeed without being photographed,” he says.

As a practical matter and as a professional photographer, Miller says he wouldn’t snap photographs of a nursing mom without first asking for permission. But he wouldn’t be required to. Any passenger with a camera phone could conceivably take a shot of a woman’s exposed breast if they wanted to, and without any legal repercussions.

A closer look at passenger perspectives

By the way, capturing photos on planes is a serious topic that merits more attention than it has received. Back in 2008, I reported on Marilyn Parver, a passenger on a JetBlue flight who recorded an altercation between the flight crew and a traveler. A flight attendant then requested her to delete the footage, but she refused.

I think most passengers are supportive of a woman’s right to feed her baby anywhere, including on an aircraft. A vast majority of air travelers believe that it should be done discreetly. To not cover up is just bad table manners. Kind of like (though not the same as) chewing with your mouth open or not using a fork.

One of the most surprising comments I got about breast-feeding passengers came from a female traveler who doesn’t have kids. She says the lactivists are misguided in their efforts to normalize the act of exposing themselves in-flight and in public.

“I fully support a woman’s right to breast-feed so long as she covers her breast in respect of other travelers’ sensibilities,” she told me.

She asked me to not mention her name. That whole nurse-in thing, again. (Related: Is it time for airlines to take a stand on breast-feeding?)

Social standards in flights

“Personally, I wouldn’t want to expose my breasts to strangers and really can’t understand what drives that urge,” she adds. “Where do you draw the line? Should women athletes be allowed to strip to their bras, or even bare breasts, if they become overheated? Why should only lactating females be afforded that freedom?” (Here’s what you need to know about flying with children.)

Good point. If lactating women don’t cover up, then what’s to stop other women from taking off their shirts on a flight? Or anywhere?

I think this is one of those times when you can’t have it both ways. Nursing women cover up not only for their own privacy, but also out of respect for other passengers, a majority of whom would prefer not to see their lactating breasts on a plane. In order to undo that social standard, you would have to erase the entire 19th century, something that’s above this consumer advocate’s pay grade.

Sure, it’s a hassle to put your baby under a blanket. But I’d hate to be the flight attendant that has to get between a teen-age shutterbug and a lactating lawyer who believes her privacy has been violated.

That’s a dispute no one would want to mediate.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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