Pregnancy is not a Crime

Incredibly, in 2009, the rescue professions are still struggling with the idea that women…are you ready…maybe you should sit down…okay, here goes…women are the ones who carry the babies before they are born. Seriously, no kidding, did YOU know this crazy bit of physical fact?

And even more astonishing, and to some annoying and seriously inconvenient, women are still often fertile after they land a job in emergency services and other male dominated work places. It’s crazy, isn’t it?

The craziest thing about all of this is that there are people out there, both male and female, who believe that if you take a “man’s job” and get pregnant, it is equivalent to breaking your leg off-duty and there should be no accommodation made for your safety or the safety of the baby you have on board. If you are worried that risking your butt on your physically demanding job is too much for your baby, then lady you should take most of the year off without pay. That baby is your problem. No one told you to go out and get pregnant, did they?

In April of this year, Suffolk County Park Police Officer Tara Germain took her case to Federal Court. Officer Germain was forced to take an unpaid leave of absense for over nine months because when she reported her pregnancy to her superiors, they refused to grant her a light duty position to safely bring her infant into the world.

Now part of the argument has to do with the fact that under the legal definition, pregnancy is not a disability and this is true, unless you are a firefighter or police officer when it can limit your ability to perform and increase your risk of injury or death in job related circumstances. Not that I am advocating treating this as a worker’s comp. issue. Certainly not. You just aren’t going to convince me that a government agency cannot find a light duty spot for a girl to fill until her baby is safely born and she can take her normal 3 month medical leave. Especially with today's red tape explosion when it comes to documenting any operation rescuers perform in the field. You also wont convince me that kicking a girl off the job for getting pregnant isn’t discrimination with the emphasis on “dis.”

My ex-husband, among others, used to tell me that at the Sheriff’s Department where he worked (one of the largest in the nation), the men generally believed that the female deputies would get through patrol training and as soon as possible after they got released to street duty, they would get pregnant. Intentionally! Just so they could get on light duty and medical leave and then promote without paying their dues like the guys. Then they would work their way up through the ranks without developing good street sense and that’s why they were usually bad supervisors. And so on… sigh.

I am always floored when I talk to people with this kind of mentality. It is so disappointing. This is what I mean about the changes coming slowly and being largely about attitudes over facts. Frances Bacon put it like this: “Falsehood flies, but truth comes limping after.”

On the bright side, the courts are beginning to recognize that since only women can incubate babies, penalizing them for pursuing their reproductive imperative, if they choose, amounts to discrimination, for instance:

Federal law in the U.S., established by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 and clarified in 1987 with the Supreme Court's decision in California Federal Savings and Loan, states that employers must do for the pregnant worker at least as much as they do for the worker who is injured off the job.

In 1991, the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson Controls extended a woman's right to work in hazardous jobs and restricted the employer's right to make decisions about the welfare of the employee's potential offspring. The Court ruled gender-specific "fetal protection policies" that bar fertile women from hazardous jobs are illegal. The determining factor in employment decisions must be the individual's ability to perform the job, not her ability to become pregnant or the fact that she is pregnant, even if the job poses hazards to the developing fetus. Following this decision, policies that require a woman to inform the employer if she becomes pregnant, or that require her to leave active firefighting at a specified point in her pregnancy, may be considered illegal.

Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) (which is contained within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k))), discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions is defined as a type of sex discrimination and is prohibited. (Tysinger v. Police Department of the City of Zanesville, 463 F.3d 569 (6th Cir. 2006)).

A new Illinois law protecting pregnant peace officers and firefighters amends the section of the Illinois Human Rights Act related to employment civil rights violations. (775 ILCS 5/2-102) The new Illinois law states that it is a civil rights violation “for a public employer to refuse to temporarily transfer a pregnant female peace officer or pregnant female firefighter to a less strenuous or hazardous position for the duration of her pregnancy if she so requests, with the advice of her physician, where that transfer can be reasonably accommodated.” (775 ILCS 5/2-102(H))

And as the courts change, we have a duty to also work on our attitudes. I don't believe that if you make it a rule for someone to call you a woman instead of a girl for example, that you will change that person’s behavior toward you over all or gain any respect. In fact I don’t mind being called a girl at all. I don’t think it is necessary to burn your bra (I like the support it gives from a purely practical viewpoint), and this form of activism probably put a lot of toxic smoke in the air in the sixties. And most importantly, I don’t think you can force change by being angry or antagonistic. I think the best thing we can do is keep the discussion alive in a rational manner and just keep one foot stepping after another to encourage real change and acceptance of women as women, in whatever challenge they choose to face. In the world of emergency services we should learn to appreciate women for the differences they bring to the job instead of hoping they will learn to act more like men.

We need, as a people, to quit thinking in terms winning and losing or them vs us. Rather we should remember that we are all on the same team and women having babies is just part of the way things are supposed to work. Both parents have a role in raising a child, but for a very short time, in the beginning, women have the responsibility of growing that baby. And this is something men should celebrate (it's not as glamorous as it sounds), and no one should try to use this biological fact as an excuse to limit or deny a woman the opportunity to work in a risk profession if that is her career choice.


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