Why was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 enacted, and what did it accomplish?

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Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 contained no language to protect pregnant women from discrimination in the workplace.  In 1978, the act was amended in order to overturn the Supreme Court decision in the 1976 case General Electric Company v. Gilbert.  The Supreme Court sided with General Electric, saying that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act did not protect women from pregnancy-based discrimination. Congress then amended Title VII, and extended the protections of the Civil Rights Act to pregnant women.  Previous to the amendment, the Civil Rights Act granted coverage for virtually all non-occupational related illnesses and accidents except for pregnancy.  Based the 1974 case Gedulding v. Aiello, the Supreme Court’s rational for denying this protection to women was that “the program divides potential recipients into two groups: pregnant women and non-pregnant persons. While the first group is exclusively female, the second includes members of both sexes.” 

Although Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) to reverse the Gilbert decision, its reach extended far beyond simply protecting pregnant women from workplace discrimination. In addition to disability coverage, Congress’s objective was to broaden the definition of “sex discrimination” to include pregnancy, childbirth, and conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth.  The amendment mandated that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefits programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."

One of the act’s primary proponent was Representative Augustus Hawkins (D-California), who introduced the bill on the floor of the house.  Hawkins stated that the purpose of the act was to create a broad ban on pregnancy discrimination. He convinced both the Senate Committee on Human Resources and the House Committee on Education and labor to write strongly worded reports supporting the ban.  However, even though there was strong support for the PDA, the broadness of the ban led to lower courts grappling with questions on how to interpret and enforce it.

The first problem the courts were faced with was determining whether men could use their own health insurance to cover their wives if their wives under their employer’s coverage. Justice John Paul Stevens, in a seven-to-two decision, wrote the Court’s opinion, which sided with the men, meaning that the act does provide coverage for male workers in these cases, reasoning that such discrimination causes economic hardships when that man is provided with inadequate health insurance policies that do not cover pregnant spouses.  The original language of the act did not address this problem at all, but Stevens argued that the spirit of the act was consistent with Congressional intention when it passed the PDA.

The second challenge faced by the lower courts was whether the passage of the PDA created  more favorable protection for pregnant employees than it provided non-pregnant employees.  Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the majority opinion in a six-to-three vote in the 1987 case California Federal Savings & Loan Association vs. Guerra, in which he wrote that the PDA does not favor pregnant women.

In the years since the Marshall opinion, broad interpretations of the PDA continue.  For example, in the 1991 case UAW v. Johnson Control, the Court found that an the presence of potentially harmful chemicals in the workplace was not just cause for refusing to hire a woman of childbearing age. 

Another broad interpretation is the length of leave time employers must extend to pregnant employees.  However, in 1993,  Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which states the female employees who have worked with a company for a least on year are guaranteed six weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Although these two acts, the PDA and the FMLA have granted historic rights to women in the workplace, many women want Congress to go further and push through paid leave for pregnant workers. 

Source: Major Acts of Congress, ©2004 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

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The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was enacted because of the growing strength of the women’s rights movement and because of pervasive discrimination against women.  Its main impact has been to reduce such discrimination, particularly against women of child-bearing age.

By the 1970s, the women’s rights movement had gained a great deal of power.  In addition, there were more and more women entering, or trying to enter, the work force.  As women tried to enter the workforce, there came to be discrimination against women who were pregnant or who were of the age most likely to become pregnant.  Employers would do things like firing women when they got pregnant or refusing to hire them if they were pregnant.  With the growth in the women’s rights movement, women now had the power that they needed to combat such discrimination.  Because they had the political power, they were able to get Congress to pass this law.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act has made it much more difficult for employers to discriminate on this basis.  Employers are, for example, no longer allowed to ask a woman if she plans to have children in the near future.  They are certainly not allowed to fire women simply because they do not want to have to deal with the inconvenience of having pregnant employees.  Thus, this law has had a major role in protecting the rights of women.

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