11/24/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

U.S. Law and Policy Should Uphold and Support a Woman's Personal Decisions About Her Pregnancy


On December 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of Young v. United Parcel Service (UPS) to determine whether the company violated the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. At issue is whether UPS failed to make reasonable accommodation for a pregnant employee, Peggy Young, by refusing to shift her to lighter duties in line with her doctor's recommendations. By denying such accommodation, even though the company routinely offers it to nonpregnant employees, UPS effectively forced Young to choose between having a healthy pregnancy and taking unpaid leave, thereby foregoing her paycheck.

The case illustrates the often hostile legal and policy environment U.S. women confront on issues surrounding pregnancy -- whether they are looking to have a healthy birth, prevent an unplanned pregnancy or obtain an abortion. Rather than making it more difficult for women to achieve their pregnancy goals, U.S. law and regulations should protect and support women's health and autonomy. First and foremost, this entails enacting policies that allow women and their partners to decide whether and when to become pregnant, to have healthy pregnancies, to raise their families with dignity and to obtain abortion care to end an unwanted pregnancy.

Policymakers and the courts should ensure that women like Young who want to achieve a healthy pregnancy are reasonably accommodated by their employers without sacrificing their economic security. But the issue at stake in Young v. UPS goes beyond pregnancy; it touches on women's right to comprehensive health care throughout their reproductive lives. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) marked a significant step in the right direction. It not only extends public and private insurance coverage to millions of Americans, but also includes a slew of pregnancy-related reforms, including provisions prohibiting insurers from regarding pregnancy as a preexisting condition and requiring private health plans to cover prenatal and delivery care and support breastfeeding, among other services. Protecting these gains should be an urgent priority for policymakers who say they support the health and well-being of women and families, as should enacting other needed reforms -- including paid parental and sick leave, a living wage and affordable child care.

Another key aspect of backing women's health is to provide them with the contraceptive services, counseling and supplies they need to time and space the births of their children or to avoid pregnancy altogether if they so choose. Here, too, the ACA marked significant progress by expanding public and private insurance coverage of contraception and requiring that most private health plans cover the full range of contraceptive methods. Likewise, publicly supported family planning services remain essential to helping the poorest women reap the significant health, social and economic benefits of timing and spacing their childbearing. However, the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling, coupled with ideological attacks on federal funding for family planning and efforts to repeal the ACA altogether, threaten these gains and interfere with the ability of millions of American women to plan their pregnancies.

Supporting women's pregnancy decisions also means ensuring access to affordable, timely and safe abortion care. It is here that policymakers and courts in many U.S. states and at the federal level have become most hostile to women's autonomy. Since 2010, a wave of abortion restrictions -- unprecedented both in number and severity -- has swept across large parts of the United States, making abortion care less accessible for growing numbers of U.S. women. These restrictions aim to increase the cost of an abortion, for instance by banning private and public insurance coverage for the procedure, or to make abortions much harder to access by enacting unnecessary and onerous regulations that force many abortion providers to shut down. Making abortions difficult or impossible to get has the effect of coercing women who may want to terminate an unwanted pregnancy into giving birth instead. Preventing women from making their own reproductive health decisions undermines their basic human rights and is unacceptable in principle.

Women deserve respect and support in determining whether or when to have a child, regardless of whether their employers, policymakers or courts endorse or agree with their decisions. In the case of Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to affirm that principle as it applies to women in the workplace who should not have to choose between having a healthy pregnancy and an income.