The Supreme Court Case Uniting Pro-Lifers & Pro-Choicers

Women’s rights groups and pro-life advocates are strange bedfellows in the case of Peggy Young, which is being presented at the Supreme Court today.

12.03.14 10:45 AM ET

Peggy Young will have some surprising legal bedfellows when her landmark case for the rights of pregnant workers is presented before the Supreme Court today. The ACLU, Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund), and the Women's Law Project are all predictable backers of Young's suit against her former employer, the United Parcel Service. But Americans United For Life (AUL) and 22 other pro-life groups are also in Young’s corner as she fights for pregnant women in the workplace.

“The purposes of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act haven’t been completely realized,” Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel for AUL tells The Daily Beast. He co-authored the amicus brief filed on behalf of 23 pro-life groups. Forsythe is adamant in his support for Young, who says she was forced to take unpaid leave when she told UPS her doctor forbade her from lifting over 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Instead of making accommodations, as UPS does for workers with disabilities or those injured on the job, the company allegedly treated Young as if she had an “off-the-job injury or condition.” Young says she ultimately lost her health benefits and pension.

“Young is not asking for special treatment. She’s asking for the same accommodations provided to other workers,” Forsythe says. Feminists and pro-choice groups on the left have agreed with his argument, which makes Young’s case so striking. Forsythe hopes that the combination of pro-life and pro-choice groups filing an amicus brief together will “put together a majority, if not a unanimous court” and provide another “rationale for ruling in favor of Peggy Young.”

Young v. UPS is one of the few cases, if not the only one, to come before the Supreme Court this year that places pro-choice and pro-life advocates on the same team, even if each side has a different motive for supporting Young.

The ACLU and Women’s Law Project are supporting Young because securing legal protections for women is part of their histories—and the plight of working mothers seems like a no-brainer cause for any liberal advocacy groups.

However, for the AUL—a group that pushes mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds before abortions, champions partial-birth abortion bans, and proudly claims on its website that it aims to “save lives today while continuing to roll back Roe v. Wade in the courts,”—the group’s support for Young is curious, at least on the surface. It simply doesn’t jive with mainstream impressions of how pro-life organizations treat women as a whole, namely without much respect for their rights and choices.

“We’re glad to be shifting the paradigm and surprising some people,” Forsythe says, though he sees support of pregnant workers as a natural, even obvious corollary to pro-life legislation.

The collaboration isn’t without precedent. While women’s reproductive health is often one of the most controversial and divisive issues in American politics, outside attacks on pregnant women have a way of rallying the masses on both sides.

Both pro-choice and pro-life advocates backed the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which is at the crux of Young’s case. The act was an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More recently, pro-life groups have often, though not universally, sided with pro-choice groups in opposing state efforts to criminalize drug abuse among pregnant women, such as with Tennessee’s law this year.

In the eyes of many pro-life advocates, securing rights for pregnant women is one more way to encourage women to stay pregnant.  “If you go back to the legislative history [of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act], members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were concerned women would be pressured into abortions if they didn’t have legal protections in the workplace and they would have to choose between their job and their baby,” Forsythe says. A desire to deter women from seeking abortions is at the heart of their fight for pregnant workers’ rights.

This anti-abortion aim is plainly evident in the pro-life amicus brief, which claims that Congress passed the PDA in the first place because it “was especially concerned about the ways that economic pressure weighs against decisions to bear children… even including economic pressure to terminate a pregnancy.” The brief also quotes New Jersey Sen. Harrison Williams, a chief sponsor of the PDA, who said an essential aim was to “prevent the tragedy of needless, and unwanted abortion forces upon a woman because she cannot afford to leave her job.” (That Williams was a lifelong Democrat illustrates the political blurred lines when it comes to laws related to pregnant women).

The anti-abortion goal is also clear in the language Forsythe uses to discuss Young v. UPS, even when we’re not actually talking about abortions at all. The term “unborn children” comes up multiple times during our interview, and he tells me “We haven’t done enough to protect the choice of life.”

But does the pro-life movement see a certain irony in throwing their weight behind a woman’s rights when said woman wants to stay pregnant, even as they opposing a woman’s right to choose?

“The choice to have a baby and the choice to abort are two different positions,” Forsythe tells me firmly before switching back to Young v. UPS. “In this particular case, Peggy Young is representing women who would like to have a family and work. That’s a great scenario that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was designed to support.”