The XX Factor

What’s Behind Conservative Support for Peggy Young?

Peggy Young and attorney Sharon Fast Gustafson answer questions outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

When it comes to the issue of employment discrimination against women, the conservative response is usually to deny it’s a problem, say that women “choose” to make less money by prioritizing domestic concerns, and fight efforts to rectify the problem, like filibustering equal pay legislation. But now a peculiar exception to that rule seems to be taking hold: When it comes to the fight against pregnancy discrimination, suddenly women have some conservative allies. 

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments for Young v. UPS, which tests whether the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act should force employers to accommodate pregnant workers in the same way they accommodate disabled workers. Peggy Young, who was put on unpaid leave from her UPS job during her pregnancy when her doctor said she couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds, is suing on the grounds that UPS could have switched her to light duty instead. Many feminist organizations are supporting Young in her suit, but so are many conservative organizations, mostly of the anti-choice variety.

Twenty-three anti-abortion groups, such as Americans United for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, filed an amicus brief with the court in support of Young’s claim. “Economic pressure is a significant factor in many women’s decision to choose abortion over childbirth,” the brief reads. “Protecting the ability to work can increase true freedom for women, promote the common good, and protect the most vulnerable among us.” 

This move is part of a recent shift in tactics for the anti-choice movement, away from stigmatizing women who have abortions as selfish and cruel and instead trying to argue that abortion is some horrible thing inflicted on women who never, in their heart of hearts, actually want to have the procedure. Much of this has come out in highly questionable efforts to “protect” women from abortion—such as mandatory waiting periods and ultrasounds. But there is no doubt that women do have abortions for economic reasons and that a woman who is forced to decide between keeping her job and losing it because of her pregnancy may indeed decide to terminate. 

Of course, not all conservatives are on board. Phyllis Schlafly and her old-school anti-feminist group the Eagle Forum reject this softer approach altogether. “In enacting PDA, Congress never intended: (1) to eliminate stereotypes of husband-breadwinner, wife homemaker families; (2) to have women return to work immediately after giving birth to the exclusion of caring for their newborns; (3) to have pregnant women work as package-delivering truck drivers; or (4) to privilege the status of female truck drivers over either male truck drivers or the women married to male truck drivers,” the Eagle Forum lawyers write in their brief to the court. “While the eradication of typical — or even stereotypical — families was the goal of the feminist movement, Congress generally has taken the more moderate path advocated by UPS here.” Other, more business-focused conservative groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have also taken a dim view of Young’s claims, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board argued that the free market alone can somehow solve the pregnancy discrimination problem.

The cynical take, the one that my dark heart is inclined toward, is that anti-choice organizations know full well that there’s no chance that any of the conservative judges will rule in favor of an employee against her employer, and so they can fluff up their “pro-woman” credentials in the public eye without having to actually worry that it will result in women getting more rights. After all, the majority of economic concerns that lead to abortion are focused on life after the baby gets here, including figuring out how to work when child care is so expensive. But the interest in women who are raising children, not just gestating them, is thin on the ground with these groups.

It’s also possible, though, that the conservative support of Young is part of a recent shift among conservatives toward greater acceptance that women can work outside of the home while also being “traditional” wives and mothers, an understanding reflected in the embrace of female politicians like Sarah Palin and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who have had newborn children while in office. Either way, the end result is that the hefty majority of amicus briefs to the court on this issue are in support of Young, though it remains to be seen if that will sway the outcome.