BOSTON -- Breast-feeding mothers must be given special accommodations when taking state medical licensing exams, the highest court in Massachusetts ruled Friday in the case of a former Harvard medical student who sued to get extra break time during the exam so she could pump breast milk for her daughter.
In its ruling in favor of Sophie Currier, the Supreme Judicial Court said it recognizes that "there remain barriers that prevent new mothers from being able to breastfeed or express breast milk."
"We take this opportunity to extend protection to lactating mothers in the context of lengthy testing required for medical licensure," Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote for the court in the unanimous ruling.
Currier sued the National Board of Medical Examiners in 2007 after the board said she could have only the standard 45 minutes in breaks during the nine-hour exam. The board said then that it must be consistent in the break time given to everyone who took the exam.
According to a summary in the court ruling, the board told Currier she was entitled to changes in the testing schedule under the American with Disabilities Act because she had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The board granted Currier's request to be given an additional testing day to complete the exam and a separate testing room in which to take the exam.
Currier also requested additional break time to breastfeed her then 4- to 5-month-old daughter, arguing she needed more time beyond the total 45 minutes to express breast milk properly. The NBME denied that request, saying lactation was not covered under the disabilities act.
The state Appeals Court granted an injunction requiring the NBME to give Currier an additional 60 minutes of break time per test day and give her a private room with a power outlet at the testing center so she could express breast milk.
Currier took the test in October 2007 with an additional one hour of break time per test day as she had sought and had been granted. She applied to take the test again a year later and passed. For the second test, she did not request additional time or accommodations to express breast milk.
NBME took the Appeals Court decision to the high court. And Currier decided to continue with her challenge even though it was no longer an issue for her because she felt it raised important issues for other women, said her attorney, Marisa Pizzi.
The Supreme Judicial Court said that in refusing to provide additional break time, the board did not violate Currier's civil rights. But the court said Currier had shown that special accommodations should be given to breast-feeding mothers in future medical licensing exams.
"We emphasize that our conclusion is based on a set of unique facts, including the fact that a lactating mother was required (or faced adverse professional consequences) to be present at the place of public accommodation for a lengthy period of time (nine consecutive hours), and takes into account the fact that the NBME did not make any showing that it could not reasonably accommodate Currier's need without incurring undue hardship," the court said in its ruling.
Currier's lawyer said that under the ruling, breast-feeding women in Massachusetts should be given adequate break time during medical exams.
"I'm pleased that the court agreed with our contention that in this case the NBME's refusal to accommodate Sophie and provide her with the additional break time she needed ... was a violation of her (public accommodation) rights," Pizzi said.
Joseph Savage Jr., an attorney for the NBME, declined to comment. "We've not had the opportunity to fully review the full opinion," he said. Savage said that since the court sent the case back to the lower court it would be inappropriate for him to comment.