Published July 12, 2022
As long as Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, the pro-life movement’s energies were devoted towards changing the judicial regime that prevented states from enacting legislation to protect unborn life by restricting abortion.
Now, the movement to end abortion must include a wider variety of policy tools in its arsenal. Especially in an era of almost 9 percent inflation, reducing the demand for abortion will require creative policy solutions. And sometimes—such as with one bill currently awaiting a Senate vote—that may mean working with unexpected partners to make life easier for pregnant moms and new parents.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) would clarify that employers must make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, while exempting small businesses or firms that would be unduly burdened by such a request. It would also protect pregnant workers from retaliation, coercion, or intimidation if they request a pregnancy- or childbirth-related accommodation.
Discriminating against pregnant workers has been against the law since 1978. But the law’s structure has made it difficult for pregnant women to successfully file discrimination claims. Currently, pregnant workers seeking an accommodation for their job must first identify another worker who was provided similar accommodations, and courts have generally interpreted that clause fairly narrowly—one advocacy group estimates two-thirds of workers lost their pregnancy discrimination lawsuits, thanks in large part to this requirement.
Conservatives understand that men and women are different, and the burdens that pregnant women carry are especially worthy of respect and adaptation. The PWFA would place more of an onus on firms to ensure pregnant moms can continue to contribute to their families’ economic well-being, rather than allow bad actors to push pregnant women out of their jobs via legal loopholes—or leave them at elevated risk of miscarriage.
A pro-life culture would not shrug when firms penalize pregnant women through incomplete accommodations or forced unpaid leave. A woman facing an unexpected pregnancy who knows her employer will face no legal consequences for cutting back her hours is not one who is receiving the social support she needs to continue on and to welcome her baby.
Many pregnant women have little or no desire to work in the later stages of pregnancy; but many low-income and working-class moms have no choice but to clock in and clock out with the aches and pains of even the easiest pregnancy, which make each day feel longer. A laissez-faire approach to economic policymaking might be willing to countenance these women being squeezed out of a job because their employer couldn’t find a way to accommodate their new situation. A pro-family policy regime, however, should require employers to think long and hard about what other duties those moms might be able to perform.
Some conservatives are rightly skeptical of the expansion of civil rights law to encompass ever-broader swaths of American society. But opposing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act won’t scale back the reach of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (pregnancy discrimination is, after all, still against the law); it will just make the process for proving discrimination claims less burdensome. If there is one class of worker pro-family conservatives should go to bat for, it is pregnant women forced to quit their jobs because of an employer unwilling to make appropriate accommodations.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for conservatives may simply be the act’s biggest supporters. It’s been endorsed by a who’s-who of liberal advocacy groups, from the ACLU to the National Women’s Law Center to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Supporters crafted the bill in a way to most likely annoy conservatives, internationally using gender-neutral terminology like “qualified employees affected by pregnancy,” to avoid giving fodder to those who believe one sex has the biological capability to gestate and birth new life and one does not. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is going through its own break-up with the Right, has supported the bill so long as it exempts businesses with fewer than 15 employees.
These provisions might give conservatives headaches. (Although an enterprising Republican senator might use his or her support for the bill to push an amendment explicitly referring to “pregnant women” and see what kind of response ensued.) But at the end of the day, changing the law and the culture to be more pro-family will, at times, require strange bedfellows.
Defending the institution of the family against the mindset in which all that matters is economic growth will require establishing some beachheads, and protecting pregnant women at work is an appropriate place to start. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has already received some Republican votes in the House, and has been co-sponsored by Republican Senators Richard Burr (N.C.) and Bill Cassidy (La.) When it comes up for a vote on the floor, it deserves a robust show of support from the pro-family Right.
Last week, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told CNN that “Republicans ought to focus on pro-family policies to support mothers and their children, not corporate welfare for big business and the ultra-wealthy.” He’s right.
For Republicans who claim the mantle of the “parents’ party,” the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act offers the chance to put Hawley’s advice into action. It is a modest but meaningful chance to demonstrate, in our new, post-Dobbs era, that conservatives are serious about standing up for pregnant moms and their babies.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.