Sophie Currier and her daughter Lea, now almost five. (Photo courtesy of Ali Smith, from her upcoming book, "Momma Love: How the Mother Half Lives," http://alismith.com/blog/category/momma-love).
In 2007, when Dr. Sophie Currier’s daughter, Lea, was four months old and still exclusively breast-fed, Sophie requested extra break time during an all-day medical licensing exam to pump her breasts. The test’s overseers, the National Board of Medical Examiners, said no, that breastfeeding was not federally recognized as a legal disability and therefore could not be accommodated.
Sophie, who has an MD and PhD from Harvard, fought that decision, and just last Friday the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in her favor, citing “barriers” to breastfeeding and saying the medical board did indeed have to give nursing mothers extra break time to express milk. Since only women breastfeed, the issue is one of gender discrimination, the court found.
Though the decision was narrowly oriented toward Sophie’s specific case, it “potentially impacts any testing organization that administers these types of professional exams,” said Sophie’s pro-bono lawyer, Marisa Pizzi of the firm Bowditch and Dewey. “The court was very clear that we’re talking about a lengthy exam, in this case one that extends nine hours. So any professional exam that takes course over such a long period of time could potentially be subject to these new protections.”
For Sophie, now 38, the classic career-family crunch time of life has included the added complication of a major lawsuit. She now lives in London with her husband and two children, has passed the British medical licensing exam and is planning to run the 26-mile London Marathon on Sunday. The lawsuit has been a nearly five-year journey for her, and though she won, she has also paid a personal price. We spoke by phone; our conversation, edited and distilled:
Your lawsuit turned into a long fight for you. What made you step into this fray?
I might be overly idealistic, but I believe very strongly that you cannot make progress and improve the world if you’re just going through the motions and taking whatever injustice comes your way. I believe fundamentally that if we don’t stand up against injustice, civilization falls apart. I would not have birth control or be a physician scientist if other women had not stood up for justice in the past.
How did the board’s denial and the lawsuit affect your career? Did you feel as if you were penalized?
The scientific way to look at it is that before the lawsuit, I had gotten into a very prestigious residency program. All the programs I applied to in 2006 and early 2007 had called and told me I was a top candidate in pathology, and I got my first choice of programs.
After the lawsuit, I applied two more times to about 30 residency training programs. Despite later getting a strong score on the exam in question, I got two interviews and one acceptance. Unfortunately, this acceptance was in a location that was not possible for my family.
So you were effectively blackballed? Continue reading