IF THE BREAST-FEEDING BILL (SB 5295) makes it through the remaining chutes of the Washington State Legislature, mothers here will no longer run the risk of being charged with indecent exposure for nursing in public. They may even get designated areas at work to feed infants and pump breast milk.

It may be tougher for breast-feeding women to gain public acceptance, however. Women who pump or nurse at work and in public still face criticism, harassment, and puritanical reprimands. Washington courts may soon be exploring whether nursing in public is a protected civil right.

"Is this really a problem?" State Senator Jeri Costa (D-Marysville), sponsor of SB 5295, asked herself when the breast-feeding issue was first brought to her attention. After Costa listened to the story of a woman who was verbally accosted for breast-feeding in public, she requested more testimonials.

"The phone rang off the hook," Costa explained in a phone interview. "People had problems with waiters at restaurants, guards escorted women out of malls. The stories were unbelievable."

So far, 13 states in the U.S. have overturned laws that interfere with breast-feeding. It's long been established that breast milk offers infants countless health benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women begin breast-feeding right after delivery, and make arrangements to provide expressed breast milk if mother and child will be apart during the child's first year.

Costa first introduced a breast-feeding bill to the legislature three years ago, and she has tried again each year since. The 1999 bill has separate versions in the Senate and House--the House Bill doesn't require employers to provide a separate breast-feeding site for mothers; a bathroom stall is deemed sufficient.

Costa is adamant that germ-ridden bathroom stalls are not the greatest place for eating and bottling food. Her Senate Bill calls for businesses to designate a separate, sanitary space where mothers can nurse. Business lobbyists have offered the only major opposition to Costa's bill--they're afraid lawsuits will result if they fail to provide adequate nursing facilities.

In a February 29 editorial, the Seattle Times criticized the bill because of its "troublesome impulse to impose personal preferences on others." The Times saw it as an unnecessary burden for small businesses.

State Senator Harold Hochstatter (R-Moses Lake) voted against SB 5295 because he believes that not everything needs a law. "Speaking as a father, my wife breast-fed with a blanket. We did things with modesty and courtesy then," Hochstatter remembers. "We used to do so well with family, churches, and traditions. Both sides should go to extremes of modesty. Walk the second mile, like Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount."

Senator Pam Roach (R-Auburn) stunned her colleagues last week when she blurted that the bill could lead to women "flopping out on street corners." Jaws dropped even further when she added, "If a guy's gonads were around his neck, he'd have to wear a tie!"

Despite dissent from Roach and Hochstatter, SB 5295 has passed the Senate. It still needs funding, passage through the House, and final approval. Victory is possible, but a blanket guarantee against harassment is probably not.

"Disgusting." "Control it." "Do it at home." That's the kind of harassment attorney Eric Heipt's client "Jessica" faced at her work site. Jessica would use her breast pump in the women's locker room at the King County Adult Correction Facility where she was employed as a corrections officer.

Although she generally used her breast pump on breaks, Jessica was ultimately fired, and she believes her termination was strongly influenced by the breast-feeding issue. "Mostly men were having reactions," reports Heipt, "but some women, including a sergeant, let Jessica know they didn't approve."

Heipt has already filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the King County Council, and now he intends to file a lawsuit against King County. The suit will be tried as a federal civil rights case, on the basis of gender discrimination. Heipt believes that Jessica's breast-feeding rights are protected under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that the treatment she received violates the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

He also believes that Jessica's case would have benefited if a law protecting breast-feeding women had been in existence at the time of her harassment.