Today in 1978: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is signed into law

October 31, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryIt’s not too often that the subject of our Today in Legal History series remains pointedly relevant even today, especially when that subject is decades old.

But today we have a 36 year old law that not only retains its social and political significance, but is also the center of a Supreme Court case in its current term.

That law is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which was signed into law 36 years ago today by President Jimmy Carter on October 31, 1978.

As the name suggests, the law prohibited discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”  Since the Act only amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this bar only applies in employment contexts.

Thus, the PDA was enacted with a very specific purpose: to prohibit workplace discrimination against pregnancy.  In practice, the PDA has been largely interpreted by courts as barring employers from firing employees because of being pregnant.

While we may take these protections for granted today, prior to the passage of the Act, it was fairly standard for an employee to lose her job as soon as her pregnancy became known to her employer.  And this was despite the fact that Title VII prohibited workplace discrimination on the basis of sex from its very inception in 1964.

It’s because of none other than the Supreme Court that employers continued to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy: two decisions in the 1970s, 1974’s Geduldig v. Aiello and 1976’s General Elec. Co. v. Gilbert, held that employer “distinctions involving pregnancy” are perfectly permissible so long as they weren’t “mere pretexts designed to effect an invidious discrimination against the members of one sex or the other.”

In other words, despite the fact that males could not and continue to be unable to become pregnant, the Supreme Court repeatedly ruled that, as a matter of law, employer discrimination against pregnancy was not discrimination against one sex or another.

However, it was because of these Supreme Court rulings that we have the PDA: it was the Gilbert ruling that prompted such a response from the public that the law was passed so relatively quickly and effortlessly.  Now, it’s widely known that any adverse employment action on the basis of pregnancy contravenes federal law.

But, as mentioned earlier, the law continues to be in the limelight even today, and the Supreme Court is once again involved with the issue: in a little over a month, the Court will hear oral arguments in Young v United Parcel Service.

Young involves a part-time driver for UPS, Peggy Young, who, after becoming pregnant, was informed by her midwife that she should not be lifting more than 20 pounds.  This accommodation was available to other UPS employees if they were injured on the job, disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or had lost their driving credentials.  However, because Young did not fit into any of these categories, she was denied the accommodation.  She instead went on unpaid leave for the duration of her pregnancy.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on the matter of whether the PDA requires employers to accommodate pregnancy, and different circuits have reached different conclusions on the issue.  A ruling against Young would largely reinforce the status quo, whereas one for her would greatly expand the scope of the PDA beyond how courts originally read it.

Given the Supreme Court’s previously discussed track record on pregnancy discrimination, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if it ruled against Young.  But we’ve come a long way over the past 36 years, and furthermore, Young is in the unique position of having both women’s rights and pro-life advocates supporting her; so the Court could really go either way.

Whichever way the Court rules, though, the PDA will be at the center of a major ruling this term – thus continuing to be quite relevant in the legal arena almost four decades after its enactment.