by Emily J. Martin and Cortelyou Kenney, National Women's Law Center. Ms. Martin is the Vice President and General Counsel of the NWLC. Ms. Kenney is a Cross-Cutting Legal Projects Fellow at the NWLC.
Thirty-five years ago today, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was signed into law, remedying the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in General Electric Company v. Gilbert which held that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy was not sex discrimination, but rather discrimination between pregnant and non-pregnant persons. Congress acted quickly to rebuke this analysis by passing the PDA, which recognizes what is obvious to most – that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. The PDA also makes clear that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions must be treated at least as well as other employees “not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” As a result of the PDA, once-common policies – such as forcing pregnant women off the job regardless of their ability to work – are no longer permissible.
Yet pregnancy discrimination still persists more than a generation after the PDA’s passage. This is in part because stereotypes about pregnant women persist in the workplace, despite the law’s protection. But even more troublingly, pregnancy discrimination also persists because some courts have read the language of the PDA narrowly, ignoring both its plain language and its intent while also limiting its protections for pregnant workers.
Specifically, courts have opened loopholes in the PDA that have too often left without protection those women who need temporary work accommodations because of pregnancy. Many women work through their pregnancies without any need for accommodation, but some pregnant workers, particularly those who work in more physically demanding or less flexible jobs, need some adjustments in work rules or duties. When their requests for reasonable accommodations – such as being allowed to carry a water bottle, refrain from climbing ladders, or avoid heavy lifting – are refused, pregnant workers must often choose between their paycheck and a healthy pregnancy even when their employers provide similar accommodations to employees who need them because of disability or injury.
by Gerald Torres, Marc and Beth Goldberg Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law, Cornell Law School; Bryant Smith Chair, University of Texas Law School
A recent Huffington Post article by Alex Palombo accuses Texas of discriminating against women in the exercise of the franchise because it has imposed new rules for voting which require all Texans to…
“…show a photo ID with their up-to-date legal name. It sounds like such a small thing, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice, only 66 percent of voting age women have ready access to a photo document that will attest to proof of citizenship. This is largely because young women have not updated their documents with their married names, a circumstance that doesn’t affect male votes in any significant way. Suddenly 34 percent of women voters are scrambling for an acceptable ID while 99 percent of men are home free.”
The law also imposes requirements of original documents for name change and a minimum fee of $20 to obtain acceptable copies of the documents. These requirements, in conjunction with registration deadlines, will leave many women unable to vote. Palombo views this as an assault on the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote, suggesting that “if the Tea Party gets their way, the only people left to vote will be wealthy white men.”
Is this column another example of fear mongering from the Left? Rather than a regressive return to the days when women had no independent political existence, let alone a right to vote, Texas’ new laws surely represent the strongest possible statement supporting women’s independent personhood. Governor Perry and his legislative confederates cannot have intended to keep women from voting or to impose new, oppressive barriers to women’s participation in the political process, right? That would be illegal.
Politicians in Ohio have gone to great lengths to end abortion in their state. They’re not taking the blatantly unconstitutional route of North Dakota and Arkansas and just banning abortion outright in an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade. Rather, politicians in Ohio are doing what they can to make it as difficult and expensive as possible to get an abortion. They are also passing measures with the intent of coercing, shaming, and judging a woman seeking an abortion. Make no mistake: these attempts are just as harmful as an all-out ban on abortion, and are increasingly encroaching upon a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
A pregnant woman in Ohio who decides on abortion faces multiple, politician-imposed, medically unnecessary steps. She must receive information intended to dissuade her from her decision and shame her for the deeply personal decision she has made. This now includes forcing her to visit the clinic so doctors can test for a fetal heartbeat and offer her the chance to hear it, and forcing her to listen to a description of the odds of carrying the pregnancy to term. She must then wait 24 hours before obtaining the medical care she originally sought. As an Ohio woman seeking an abortion said, “It’s a hard decision for anybody to make. To make it more difficult by passing these laws and making women feel guilty is terrible.” (And these new requirements are only part of the numerous abortion restrictions that became law in Ohio this year).
Unfortunately, these efforts in Ohio are part of a national trend. Abortion opponents have continued to push the boundaries in an attempt to further challenge the core constitutional protections for a woman’s decision to have an abortion. In the last three years, states have passed a record number of abortion restrictions. These include requirements that a woman undergo a medically unnecessary, physically invasive ultrasound before obtaining an abortion, prohibiting a woman from purchasing a comprehensive health insurance plan that includes coverage of abortion, and imposing unnecessary, costly, and burdensome requirements on the clinics and doctors who provide abortions in an effort to shut them down.
Erin Ryan’s analysis of potential constitutional challenges to environmental laws in the wake of the NFIB v. Sebelius decision makes a strong case that even under the Supreme Court’s new Spending Clause jurisprudence, these laws are constitutionally sound. (I came to a similar conclusion last year when I asked whether Sebelius casts constitutional doubt on Title IX.) Ryan’s analysis also makes clear, however, that the fundamental incoherence of the Supreme Court’s coercion analysis in Sebelius means that it is difficult to predict how it will be applied going forward. While the Court claimed to reason from contract law in finding the terms of the Medicaid expansion so coercive as to render a state’s implementation of the expansion involuntary, it is difficult to imagine the Court finding such a bargain coercive in other contexts. Consider, for example, another Medicaid case, Harris v. McRae.
In 1976, Cora McRae needed to terminate her pregnancy for medical reasons, but she had very little money. She had health insurance through Medicaid, but under a provision of federal law known as the Hyde Amendment initially passed in 1976, federal Medicaid funds cannot pay for abortions, including medically necessary abortions, though Medicaid covers other medically necessary expenses, including the costs of childbirth. McRae joined with other plaintiffs to challenge this law, arguing that by paying for childbirth expenses, but not for medically necessary abortion expenses, the government was unconstitutionally coercing her reproductive decisions and denying her constitutionally-protected right to end her pregnancy. In 1980, the Supreme Court rejected McRae’s challenge to Medicaid’s failure to fund medically necessary abortions. “Although Congress has opted to subsidize medically necessary services generally, but not certain medically necessary abortions,” the Court wrote, “the fact remains that the Hyde Amendment leaves an indigent woman with at least the same range of choice in deciding whether to obtain a medically necessary abortion as she would have had if Congress had chosen to subsidize no health care costs at all.”
In other words, refusing to provide Medicaid coverage for abortions did not represent unconstitutional coercion of a poor woman’s reproductive choices, according to the Court, because in the end it was her poverty that constrained her choices, rather than any barriers the federal government had placed in her way. That she was poor and might be forced to make certain choices because of her poverty—like going through with a potentially dangerous pregnancy because she could not afford an abortion--wasn’t the government’s fault, the Court held.
Judge Patricia Wald, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, will be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama later this year.
Wald, a former ACS Board member, is among 16 recipients the White House announced today. Of Wald, the president said:
Patricia Wald is one of the most respected appellate judges of her generation. After graduating as 1 of only 11 women in her Yale University Law School class, she became the first woman appointed to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and served as Chief Judge from 1986-1991. She later served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. Ms. Wald currently serves on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
Wald retired from the bench in 1999, but as Obama noted hardly became idle. She was also honored in 2008 by Legal Times “as a ‘Visionary’ for breaking through barriers during a long career in law,” its blog notes.
This year Wald has been instrumental in pushing back against Senate Republicans led by Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) who have sought to prevent the president from filling vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, considered one of the most powerful federal appeals court circuits because of myriad cases it hears regarding constitutional concerns and challenges to federal regulation. Grassley has introduced a bill that would remove three judgeships from the 11-member D.C. Circuit under the guise that its caseload is not as burdensome as others.
Many, such as the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Judith Schaeffer, have noted the obviously political effort to keep a Democratic president from shaping the make-up of the D.C. Circuit, which currently has a distinctly conservative bent. In a recent post for CAC’s Text & History blog, Schaeffer provides plenty of documentation undermining Grassley’s argument that judgeships should be yanked from the D.C. Circuit. She notes that an April letter to the Judiciary Committee from the Judicial Conference of the United States providing assessments of staffing needs of the federal bench did not “contain any recommendation to eliminate or not fill seats on the D.C. Circuit.”