A bar in Virginia is facing some scrutiny after it closed a woman’s tab without her asking. The woman wasn’t overly drunk or acting erratic; she was breastfeeding.
Crystal McCullough brought her daughter to Big Woody’s in Chesapeake, Virginia this week to celebrate closing on a new house, she told a local Fox affiliate. She sat with her family breastfeeding at the table. “I had one sip of beer and was not planning on the rest until after I was done nursing,” she added in an interview with WTKR. She had also ordered a shot of whiskey that she hadn’t yet drank. That’s when employees of the bar cut her off, citing complaints from other customers.
One of the owners of the bar admitted to WAVY.com that his staff could have handled the situation better, and that there was some confusion over whether McCullough was being cut off because she was drinking, or simply because she was breastfeeding in public.
“Our concern was for the child, really that’s what it is,” he said.
But to McCullough, that’s still not a good reason. “I don’t deny that I had alcohol and was breastfeeding,” she told Fox, “but it’s how I went about it and how I always go about it that makes the difference.”
Leaving aside public perception, there are no clear guidelines on whether women can drink while breastfeeding. While no one thinks a woman should be plastered while caring for a child, doctors including the American Academy of Pediatrics believe that drinking in moderation while breastfeeding is totally acceptable. The Academy does, however, suggest that the breastfeeding woman should wait two hours for the alcohol to clear her system.
In a sense, McCullough is lucky that the public scorn over her choice to drink and breastfeed only led to getting the check a little too early. A mother in Arkansas was thrown in jail after restaurant patrons noticed she was drinking a beer while breastfeeding and called the cops. Indeed, there is a growing trend of criminalizing how pregnant and breastfeeding women behave in the name of public health. Another woman in Montana was charged with criminally endangering a child this week, for example, because she tested positive for drugs when she was just 12 weeks pregnant.
The laws that allow these harsh punishments that seem out of step with the potential harm done are known as fetal harm laws, and exist in 38 states. The group National Advocates for Pregnant Women has found that hundreds of women have been stripped of custody or put in jail using these laws. While some punishments are rightful, and while no one is advocating for permissive attitudes toward harming a child, charges meted out under the laws are disproportionate: a huge majority of the women losing custody or getting jail time are African-American.