Parsing through the backlash to the CDC’s guidelines, it’s easy to feel like we’ve been here before. And we have: Just a few decades ago, a landmark Supreme Court case centered on the same idea of woman as wombs-in-waiting. In the mid-1980s, the United Auto Workers filed a lawsuit on behalf of its members against the battery manufacturer Johnson Controls, challenging the company’s “fetal-protection policy.” The policy provided that unless a female employee could prove she was infertile, she could no longer work in any area of the company’s 16 plants that exposed her to lead. The company cited potential harm to female employees’ fetuses—despite already having a policy that allowed pregnant workers to temporarily transfer into safer jobs—and the potential for liability, should a child disabled by in utero exposure later decide to sue Johnson Controls. (Such a case had never been filed.)
Because the best-paying jobs at Johnson Controls involved lead exposure, the policy amounted to a wholesale demotion for most of the 275 women working for the company, regardless of whether they planned to have children.
“Ridiculous and degrading” is how Elsie Nason, a welder at the company’s Bennington, Vermont plant, described the directive in a 1989 Boston Globe article. Even though Nason had no interest in becoming pregnant—she was 50 years old at the time, divorced, and a mother of three—the only way she could keep her $20-per-hour paycheck was to be sterilized, so she grudgingly accepted a transfer to a lower-paid custodial job. But other women felt the financial pressure to go through with sterilization. “I panicked,” Gloyce Qualls of Milwaukee told The Chicago Tribune in 1991. “All I could see was that I couldn’t afford to pay my bills.”
In its lawsuit, the UAW conceded that lead was dangerous, but faulted the company’s solution, which only addressed the harm that might occur to a developing fetus while ignoring lead’s damage to men’s reproductive organs. Scientific evidence showed that lead caused mutations in sperm, as well as low sperm count and low sperm motility, and that pregnancies conceived with sperm from lead-exposed men had resulted in miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had advised a few years earlier in its 1978 standards on workplace lead exposure, outright exclusion of female employees was not the way to assure healthy pregnancies. Instead, both women and men in lead-exposed jobs who wanted to start families should have access to workplace protections that would lower their blood lead levels and make it safer to conceive.
But the men who had tried that approach with Johnson Controls had gotten nowhere. According to court documents from the case, when an employee named Donald Penney, hoping to decrease his blood-lead concentration before attempting to start a family with his wife, asked for a three-month transfer to a low-lead area of the Delaware plant where he worked, he was met with such open hostility that he quit. Similarly, one married couple that worked for Johnson Controls in Milwaukee asked whether the wife could keep her well-paid lead-exposed job if her husband got a vasectomy. The answer was no. Given that most of the company’s factory jobs were held by men, it was easy to see why simply cutting the few women from the assembly line was Johnson Controls’ preferred reproductive-safety strategy. If men were also taken out of rotation to protect fetal health, production would slow down considerably.