In 1978 the US Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as an amendment to the sex discrimination section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prior to the Act, there were various Supreme Court cases that dealt with issues of employment discrimination against pregnant women and demonstrated a need for statutory protections from this type of discrimination. Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in response to two Supreme Court cases.
Geduldig v. Aiello was a 14th Amendment case before the Supreme Court in 1974. The Supreme Court ruled that exclusion of medical benefits for pregnant women under California’s disability insurance program did not count as sex discrimination and did not violate the equal protection. The majority opinion by Justice Stewart found no evidence of discriminatory intent based on the types of risks insured against because the program protected men and women equally, and did not apply a heightened standard of review. For Stewart, the issue was not simply about pregnancy but about sex in general. Justice Brennan’s dissent expressed dissatisfaction with the majority’s refusal to apply a stricter standard of scrutiny to an issue involving gender-based classifications. Brennan took particular issue with how the program treated men and women differently based upon physical characteristics associated with one’s gender, noting that men could recover full compensation for their gender specific disabilities while women could not receive total compensation for their gender-linked disabilities.
The second case, General Electric v. Gilbert, was a class action brought by female employees of General Electric. The petitioners argued that the employee disability plan violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by excluding pregnancy related disabilities. Relying on Geduldig v. Aiello, the Supreme Court concluded that the disability plan did not violate Title VII. According to the court, gender discrimination did not exist simply because the package was less than all-inclusive for women. It found no evidence that excluding disability benefits for pregnancy led to the female employees having a plan of lesser value when compared to the male employees. Justice Brennan’s dissenting opinion argued that the disability plan conflicted with the purposes of Title VII, and that the court should have adhered to a guideline established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offering more protection against sex discrimination than Title VII alone. According to Brennan, this more protective guideline would help reduce the burdens placed on pregnant women in the work force. These Supreme Court opinions show that, whether intentionally or not, Congress left a gap and the Supreme Court proved unwilling to expand its protection through judicial action. Congress took issue with these opinions and passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in response.