Barring Breast-feeding for Doctors?

Editor's Note: Following the publication of this article, Lis is glad to report that Sophie Currier will be allowed extra break time to breast feed during her nine-hour medical exam. For more information on this story, click here.

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If you’ve ever been pregnant, breast-fed or even just witnessed the miracle of life, you’ll know the joys of motherhood are superabilities, not disabilities. Sadly, not everyone agrees and a young mom with an infant may pay a heavy price for this misconception.

Sophie Currier, 33, already has a doctorate from Harvard. In her latest string of accomplishments, one test stands between Currier, her Harvard medical degree and a coveted residency. To begin her residency this fall, as scheduled, she must pass the clinical knowledge exam run by the Board of Medical Examiners. But at the moment, she runs a high risk of failing.

If you’re wondering how a twice Harvard educated woman would be in danger of bombing an exam, keep reading. It’s not that this new mom can’t take the heat or doesn’t understand the material — her problem is that she’s breast-feeding! What does one have to do with the other? Everything. Currier says she can’t pass this nine-hour exam with only 45 minutes for a break. She needs extra time to pump breast milk for her baby, Lia. Sounds like a no-brainer to me — obviously the board should provide the nursing mother with a few extra minutes to feed her child and avoid painful breast engorgement and mastitis (an infection that stems from blocked milk ducts). But the powers that be, with their Ivy League credentials can’t compute this simple math problem — 45 minutes does not allow sufficient time for Currier to pump breast milk.

The board, in refusing the request, said that they could only accommodate conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Catherine Farmer, the board’s manager of disability services said Sophie could spend some of her break time pumping breast milk in another testing room. Let me add that these testing rooms are monitored and have glass walls. I’m going to repeat myself: nursing is a superability. Why should she suffer and risk her own livelihood when Joe Schmoe, taking the same test, sits comfortably in the testing facility? Currier concedes and readily admits that nursing is not a disability, but the physical demands are serious. “What am I going to do, express milk all over your computer?” she asked a board member? Good point! Farmer added that if examinees finish a test section early, they can gain extra time for the break. I hope Ms. Currier is counting the extra seconds in between her last question and next section so she can sprint to a room in time to feed little Lia.

Breast-feeding advocates say the medical examiners’ stance was unreasonable. Dr. Ruth Lawrence, chair of the women of the breast-feeding section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the board’s decision was “possibly letter-accurate, but totally inhumane and insensitive.” Does anyone else find it ironic that a medical board won’t accommodate a woman’s need to breast-feed when doctors are the ones who strongly encourage nursing for the health and developmental benefit of babies?!

Despite medical evidence detailing the benefits of breast-feeding for mom and baby, society at large shows less support, particularly in workplaces and public arenas. For example, a flight attendant evicted a nursing mother from a plane in Vermont last year, leading hundreds of outraged mothers to stage a “nurse-in,” at the airport. Sounds like we’re living in the 1950s.

To combat this insensitivity, Congress proposed the Breast-Feeding Promotion Act in an effort to protect working mothers from being fired or punished for breast-feeding during lunch or breaks. Pregnant women are protected from discrimination federally, but nursing moms don’t qualify. When Currier alerted the bills' chief sponsor, Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) the representative was stunned. “The board should know that breast-feeding mothers needs to express her milk approximately every two hours. It’s a natural process. She can’t turn it off," she said.

So far, 47 states have voiced concern for new moms and passed protective laws to allow mothers to breast-feed in public and some are even exempt from jury duty where breaks can be sporadic. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has not joined the plight, but state Sen. Susan C. Fargo (D-Ma.) has already filed a bill that would legalize nursing in public and encourage employers to support nursing.

To be fair to the board, they did grant Currier some testing accommodations for dyslexia and attention problems. She’s taking the typically one-day test in two days. I am all for accommodating physical and mental disabilities, but not granting her extra time to breast-feed can have long-lasting consequences, apart from the physical pain it may cause. If forced to delay the exam, “it will cause significant hardships” by delaying her ability to make a living and repay her loans,” says Alison Steube, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Bottom Line: The brains at Harvard need to take their nose out of the books and experience a reality check that not everything can be checked off in a neat little box. If a woman requires accommodations to care for her baby, her individual situation should be considered, as this is one area where even dad cannot pinch hit and you can’t hire a replacement.


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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.