The Pregnant Citizen, from Suffrage to the Present
Reva B. Siegel
This Article examines how courts have responded to the equal protection claims of pregnant citizens over the century women were enfranchised. The lost history it recovers shows how equal protection changed—initially allowing government to enforce traditional family roles by exempting laws regulating pregnancy from close review, then over time subjecting laws regulating pregnancy to heightened equal protection scrutiny.
It is generally assumed that the Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in Geduldig v. Aiello insulates the regulation of pregnancy from equal protection scrutiny. The Article documents the traditional sex-role under-standings Geduldig preserved and then demonstrates how the Supreme Court itself has limited the decision’s authority.
In particular, I show that the Rehnquist Court integrated laws regulating pregnancy into the equal protection sex-discrimination framework. In United States v. Virginia, the Supreme Court analyzed a law mandating the accommodation of pregnancy as classifying on the basis of sex and subject to heightened scrutiny; Virginia directs judges to look to history in enforcing the Equal Protection Clause to ensure that laws regulating pregnancy are not “used, as they once were . . . to create or perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women.” In Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, the Court then applied the antistereotyping principle to laws regulating pregnancy, as a growing number of commentators and courts have observed.
I conclude the Article by considering how courts and Congress might enforce the rights in Virginia and Hibbs in cases involving pregnancy under both the Fourteenth and the Nineteenth Amendments. To remedy law-driven sex-role stereotyping that has shaped the workplace, the household, and politics, the Article proposes that Congress adopt legislation mandating the reasonable accommodation of pregnant employees, such as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. These sex-role stereotypes affect all workers, but exact the greatest toll on low-wage workers and workers of color who are subject to rigid managerial supervision.
When we locate equal protection cases in history, we can see how an appeal to biology can enforce traditional sex roles as it did in Geduldig— and see why a court invoking Geduldig today to insulate the regulation of pregnancy from scrutiny under Virginia and Hibbs would not respect stare decisis, but instead retreat from core principles of the equal protection sex-discrimination case law.
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