Breastfeeding mothers and infants consuming breast milk got support in several ways from New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday with the approval of bills designed to boost their rights, their wallets, and the health of their babies.
“It was a good day for women and their families, for nutrition and good health,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and a co-sponsor of all three measures that were approved without debate by one house or the other.
Several of the bills’ sponsors said the measures are part of the Legislature’s recognition of the benefits of breast milk to infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that breast milk contains all the vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in his first six months of life, as well as disease-fighting substances that can protect babies from illness. They want to make it easier, safer, and cheaper for women to feed their children.
One of two bills receiving final legislative passage had drawn some opposition in the past. S-974/A-1442 sets standards for human milk banks looking to operate in the state or donating milk to hospitals here. It cleared the Assembly 73-0.
"This bill is part of the effort to ensure that milk provided to new mothers and, ultimately, to their babies is safe,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and a primary sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “It will establish uniform standards for human milk banks.”
The bill requires that human milk banks seeking to operate in New Jersey or providing donated milk to hospitals in the state be registered with the state Department of Health and accredited by the department under standards it establishes. Milk banks collect, store, and distribute breast milk that has been donated. This breast milk is used by hospitals to feed low birth-weight babies or the newborns of new mothers with delayed lactation. It is also sold directly to a parent, with a physician's prescription, who is unable to nurse, or needs additional breast milk to feed a child.
Under the bill, the department would inspect every human milk bank operating in the state at least once every five years and could revoke the accreditation of a facility that it is not in compliance with state requirements and guidelines. The DOH could institute a civil action to stop the operation of a human milk bank whenever the commissioner determines that safety hazards exist or a bank is not complying with state rules. Violators would face fines.
“I think it’s healthy to have milk banks that are regulated and inspected, rather than getting milk that could be contaminated or from the black market,” Vainieri Huttle said.
Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D-Gloucester), another sponsor, said only four states — California, Maryland, New York, and Texas — have set regulations for human milk banks. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America lists almost two dozen banks in operation across the country.
“As the industry continues to grow, the need for regulation of these operations within the state becomes more and more essential to ensuring safety and quality of the donations,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and another sponsor.
First introduced in January 2013, the effort to regulate milk banks passed the Assembly in the 2012-2013 session and the Senate in the last session. This is the first time it has passed both houses and been sent to the governor.
The New Jersey chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has supported the bill as a way to give mothers access to a safe supply of breast milk in light of a growing number of unregulated websites through which women can buy or sell the milk. In the last session, the bill was opposed by the New Jersey Breastfeeding Coalition, which feared it would serve as a barrier to breastfeeding.
But breastfeeding rates are rising in New Jersey. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Breastfeeding Report Card shows that the rate of New Jersey mothers exclusively breastfeeding at three months rose to about 47 percent. At the same time, children receiving breast milk at six months increased to around 59 percent and at 12 months the proportion rose to nearly 35 percent.
The CDC and NJDOH also support breastfeeding and efforts to boost rates in the state not only because of its nutritional and illness-prevention benefits, but also because it has been proven to reduce childhood obesity and is a low-cost way to feed an infant.
A second state measure that seeks to help make it slightly less expensive for mothers who express their milk using a breast pump also passed its final legislative hurdle and was sent to the governor on Thursday. The bill, A-4670/S-3112, would provide a sales tax exemption for breast pumps, collection and storage supplies, and the servicing of pumps.
State law currently allows for a sales tax exemption for certain medical equipment, but the state division of taxation has determined that breast pumps and related supplies do not qualify for that exemption. The bill passed 39-0 on Thursday by the Senate would rectify that situation.
The state Office of Legislative Services estimates the exemption would mean the state would collect $1.36 million less in sales tax annually on breast-pump sales and supplies.
"Breast pumps and pump supplies are basic necessities for many New Jersey families and should not be subject to sales and use tax," Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) and a co-sponsor of the bill, said last week as the bill cleared a Senate committee.
A third bill that was approved by the Assembly on Thursday but still needs final approval by the full Senate would extend civil rights protections to breastfeeding mothers. The Assembly approved A-2294 in a 70-0 vote.
State law gives women the right to nurse infants in public and at most jobs, but women nursing older children or those working for small businesses are not necessarily protected. Vainieri Huttle said the bill seeks to ensure that no woman is denied the right to express breast milk at work and that all businesses make reasonable accommodations for lactating women.
“With mothers breastfeeding longer or going back to work quicker, we need to make sure they are protected,” she said. “They may need more than the allotted breaks and they need a suitable location to express milk in private. This is necessary so they feel safe and protected from discrimination.”
Such discrimination would become illegal should this bill become law. By extending civil rights under the “Law Against Discrimination” to breastfeeding and expressing milk, it would become a civil rights violation for a working woman to be fired or otherwise discriminated against because of breastfeeding or expressing her milk during breaks.
Vainieri Huttle said the New Jersey Business and Industry Association opposed the bill but did not testify against it. She called the requirements businesses would have to meet “quite reasonable.”
With just about a month to go until the end of the legislative session, Vainieri Huttle said she thinks the civil rights bill will pass the Senate and that Gov. Chris Christie will sign all three measures. Christie’s office typically does not comment on pending legislation.