An Oregon mom's story of feeling humiliated by her doctor for breastfeeding her baby has struck a chord with people nationwide, going viral on social media and even inspiring a 17,000-person petition to have the doctor fired.
The woman at the center of it all, Jennifer Howard, 38, of Stayton, knows she's not alone. Mothers everywhere are shamed for trying to feed their infants and she wants to draw attention to the issue.
The mother of three said she was baffled after her doctor asked her to cover herself while breastfeeding her daughter during an appointment in June. She was further confused and hurt when her clinic refused to switch her to a new doctor.
After posting her experience on Facebook, her story attracted national coverage and outrage. News coverage led to the creation of an online petition calling for the doctor to be fired. By Thursday morning, 17,220 people had signed the petition.
But the petition has taken on a life of its own. Howard said she has no connection to the petition and does not endorse it.
She told the Statesman Journal she never intended for anyone to get fired. "This is the first time I've heard of that," she said.
Salem Clinic said it supports breastfeeding but declined to comment further on the incident.
The doctor's office visit
Howard said she never expected a doctor to ask her to cover up while breastfeeding her baby.
She brought her then-3-month-old daughter, Evelyn, with her during an office visit at Salem Clinic. She was seeing a new doctor, Dr. Dennis Barnett, in part, for postpartum depression.
During the visit, Evelyn began to cry, she said. As Howard picked her up to feed her, she said Barnett asked if she had something to cover herself with.
No doctor had ever asked her that before.
She said Barnett told her it was a rule the clinic had to avoid situations that could result in lawsuits against a staff member for doing something inappropriate.
Howard said she was embarrassed and flustered.
She fished a blanket out of her diaper bag. The doctor took the blanket out of her hand and held it up to cover her, Howard said, to shield her while she got her baby latched, then draped it over her.
"It was humiliating and uncomfortable and I felt judged and shamed for trying to feed my baby," she said.
Howard said she cried the whole way home. She later contacted patient relations at Salem Clinic to ask what their breastfeeding policy was. She was told that they have none.
She complained to the clinic and filed a complaint with the Oregon Medical Board.
She said she no longer felt comfortable being Barnett's patient, especially after filing a complaint against him. But her request to switch doctors at the clinic was denied. Howard said she feels like she was forced out of the clinic and won't be returning.
Telling her story
The denial letter was the last straw. On July 24, Howard took to social media, recounting her experience on Facebook.
"I've spent some time chewing on this and debating whether or not to share publicly," her post began. "Then a respected friend told me that I should complain loudly and widely. I'm mad enough to do just that. In no uncertain terms, I am being discriminated against and forced out of my medical clinic for breastfeeding Evelyn."
The post drew hundreds of shares and comments and garnered the attention of local and national news.
"It just got really big," Howard said. "I was not expecting it to be shared so many times."
In a statement to the Statesman Journal, Salem Clinic officials said clinic staff and all of its doctors support breastfeeding mothers.
They declined to give details on the specific incident, saying, "in our 93-year history, we have not, and will never, discuss individual patient issues in the media, social or otherwise."
Attempts to reach out to Barnett personally were forwarded to clinic administration.
Officials stressed that staff follows all local, state and federal laws, including those regarding breastfeeding mothers.
"We would have liked to have had a conversation with the posting mother, but she has chosen to not accept our invitation to meet; our call was returned by her attorney," they said. "While we disagree with her recollection of events, we do support this mother, all mothers, in their efforts to promote breastfeeding awareness and positivity."
Howard took issue with Salem Clinic's statement.
Before her story was aired on KOIN 6 news, Howard said she repeatedly tried to talk to clinic management and work with them and clarify their policy. She said clinic administrators reached out to her after the story aired.
By then, she had her lawyer contacted the clinic. Howard said she has no plans to sue the clinic. She wants her efforts to effect change to be taken seriously.
The online petition demands the doctor be fired or penalized for telling her to cover up.
"If this doctor can't handle breastfeeding—a natural part of raising an infant—he shouldn't be treating new mothers, let alone other patients," stated the authors of the petition on Care2Petitions.
Howard said she would rather receive an apology from clinic officials and get them to educate employees so another breastfeeding mother doesn't have the same experience.
Right to breastfeed in public
Oregon law gives women the right to breastfeed their child in a public place.
"This protection is needed since women breastfeeding in a public place may be asked to stop, leave or cover up, causing embarrassment and stigmatization," according to an Oregon Health Authority statement. "Embarrassment remains a barrier to breastfeeding."
However, having a medical chaperone present during gynecological, breast and other intimate exams is a common practice. The American Medical Association recommends using a chaperone to "prevent misunderstandings between patient and physician."
Doctors are advised by AMA to have an authorized member of their medical team accompany the patient during the exam.
Insurance companies also recommend chaperones as a way to reduce liability for misunderstandings and claims of sexual abuse.
The Oregon Medical Board only requires chaperones for licensees through certain disciplinary orders, said Nicole Krishnaswami, interim executive director of the medical board.
"In all other situations, licensees may offer a chaperone when a patient or the licensee feels a chaperone is needed or if a facility policy requires the use of a chaperone," she said.
Howard said Barnett did not offer to have a nurse or chaperone come in while she was breastfeeding. But before he examined her c-section scar, he went into the hall and got a nurse.
Howard said she knows how beneficial breast milk can be to her child. She also knows she has a legal right to breastfeed in public.
"It is my right to feed my baby anywhere, anyhow," she said. "The law says so. And the fact that I was hassled in a doctor's office just blows my mind. That was the one place I thought I'd be free from being shamed."