Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991
WOMEN WORKERS WON a major victorylast March when the Supreme Court voted to prohibit employers from adopting “fetal protection” policies. These were designed to keep women of childbearing age from jobs—often among the highest paying—that may be hazardous to their reproductive health or to the potential health of their fetuses. At a time when women’s reproductive freedom is under constant fire, even by the same court (as in its May decision allowing the government to further restrict health facilities receiving any fed-end aid), the ruling came as quite a surprise.
The overwhelming focus on the health and well-being of women’s extant and potential children obscures the very urgent needs of working and poor women Fetal protection policies have been an ideal way for corporations to neglect women’s needs while pretending to defend them.
At least fifteen major corporations have such policies, the most well known being Johnson Controls Inc., the nation’s largest manufacturer of automobile batteries. In 1982 the company instituted a policy banning women of childbearing age from jobs involving lead exposure. Women could enter those jobs only if they could prove they were no longer fertile. In 1984 the United Auto Workers (UAW) sued the company, stating that the policy violated federal civil rights laws.
Calling fetal protection policies illegal sex discrimination, Justice Harry Blackmun said “fertile men, but not fertile women, are given a choice as to whether they wish to risk their reproductive health for a particular job.” Blackmun went on to say that “it is no more appropriate for the courts than it is for individual employers to decide whether a woman’s reproductive role is more important to herself and her family than her economic role. Congress has left this choice to the woman as hers to make.” According to UAW attorneys, the decision is broad enough to effect as many as 15-20 million women workers.
Biology, Blackmun’s statements imply, is not destiny. But the Supreme Court ruling, while a major step forward for working women, relies on a liberal understanding that individuals should have the “freedom” to make decisions about their lives without government interference.
Blackmun wrote, “Decisions about the welfare of future children must be left to the parents who conceive, bear, support and raise them rather than to the employers who hire those parents.” Corporations couldn’t agree more when it comes to providing paid parental and sick leave, or paying child-care bills for their employees.
Both male and female workers should have control over their own bodies. But that would require changing the priorities of a government that mobilizes for war rather than healthcare, housing, childcare, quality education and decent Jobs for its citizens. Freedom doesn’t mean having to decide whether to take a good job or have a family.
The banning of fetal protection policies does lay the groundwork for women’s increased participation in work life and underscores the fact that as long as only one part of the work force is “protected,” that so-called protection will be used to the employer’s advantage. Fetal protection policies functioned to keep women out of higher-paying jobs and retarded the fundamental fight to make the workplace a safe environment.
Now the mask is off—but the fight is incomplete. Without a campaign to clean up the workplace, both men and women will enjoy the “right” to be exposed to conditions that can damage their health and ability to conceive and bear healthy children.
Employers will attempt to avoid compliance by threatening to close down plants and move. This is especially important today, with the inevitable opening up of Mexico to “free trade.” Thus the fight to exclude toxic substances from the workplace—rather than the workers—becomes an international struggle. And once again, the fight for women’s rights challenges the notion that corporate profits come before human needs.
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July-August 1991, ATC 33