The late Irish comedian Dave Allen had a good take on the issue of women breastfeeding in public: "Anybody offended by it," he said, "is staring too hard."
His wisdom is worth remembering when considering the case of the Timaru cafe owner who asked a mother to "cover herself" while she breastfed her 3-month-old daughter.
The mother, Megan Fitzgerald, was presumably not being asked to cover herself but rather the visible swell of her breast (her daughter Jada would have been ensuring that the nipple was safely hidden from shocked public view).
Thus "self" becomes a euphemism for the unmentionable "breast". Not only does the mother become synonymous with her breast; she becomes nothing other than her breast. And the act of breastfeeding turns her from a cafe customer going about her business into a threat to public order and good taste.
Allen's point is that somebody sitting near a breastfeeding mother needs to peer quite closely, typically from close-up and above, to get a clear view of anything that might be construed as offensive.
But more important, a nursing mother is, by definition, inoffensive. Engaging in an act recommended by the Health Ministry, protected by the Human Rights Act and endorsed by evolution, she is doing exactly what she is meant to do and she deserves the unconditional approval of society for doing so.
If she were running around the cafe bare-breasted, she might be considered to be engaging in offensive behaviour - although modern fashions, not to mention officially sanctioned parades on Queen St, might argue against such an interpretation.
A nursing mum is in a different league. The Health Ministry's recommendation that mothers should take a shawl to shield the breast and baby in public is an unacceptable concession to the sensibilities of people who need to learn to mind their own business. If they are offended, the cure is in their control: they can - and should - simply look the other way.