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High court backs plea of lactating physician

The state’s highest court ruled Friday that a medical licensing board violated a nursing mother’s rights by failing to accommodate her need to pump breast milk while taking a test, the first time the court has tied lactation to pregnancy and gender rights.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Sophie C. Currier, a mother of two and a physician who said the National Board of Medical Examiners failed to accommodate her lactation when she was taking the required exam for medical school students in 2007.

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The court recognized that breast-feeding women are a gender-specific sub class of women and that the failure to accommodate Currier amounted to a failure to accommodate her based on her sex. The ruling piggybacked a previous decision by the court that pregnancy is a gender-specific condition.

“The same reasoning applies to the expression of breast milk [whether by breastfeeding or by expression pursuant to a pump],’’ the court said in a decision written by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland.

“This condition of lactation is inextricably linked to pregnancy and thus sex linked.’’

The ruling applies specifically to the case involving the National Board and a unique set of factors involved in the board’s physician test, such as the number of hours required to take the test and the limited break time. But it could have widespread ramifications for any organization making a decision related to a woman who is breast feeding.

“This is a landmark decision,’’ said attorney Marisa L. Pizzi of Bowditch & Dewey, who represented Currier. “They’ve recognized that breast feeding is a sub class of women, and discriminating against breast-feeding women is discrimination on the basis of sex.’’

Currier, who is a licensed physician now living in England, said in a telephone interview that women who are breast feeding no longer have to decide between their career and their children.

“This is much bigger than the exam,’’ Currier said. “There hasn’t been recognition in society for the need of women to have certain accommodations during this process.’’

Currier was a student at Harvard Medical School when she sought to take the physician’s test in 2007, a requirement to be a certified doctor. In one step of the test, applicants must complete about 370 multiple-choice questions in eight 60-minute blocks, with a 15-minute introductory tutorial. Applicants receive 45 minutes of break time during the course of the examination.

Currier, who was nursing a 4-month-old girl, sought accommodations to use a breast pump. After initially refusing, the board did provide her with a private room with a power outlet so she could use her pump, and it determined that she could have a one-hour break on the first day if she skipped the 15-minute tutorial and added that to her allotted 45-minute break. On the second day, she would receive two breaks: one for 20 minutes, another for 25 minutes.

But Currier argued that the time was not enough. In her court case, she cited the testimony of medical experts who said a mother nursing a 4-month-old child would need to breast feed or pump milk every three hours, for up to 30 minutes per session if using a pump.

The medical experts also cited the health benefits for the child and mother of breast-feeding and pumping milk.

Currier obtained an immediate court injunction that allotted her an additional hour to use the breast pump. The case progressed in the courts anyway, so that a final decision could be made, and a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the National Board.

But the Supreme Judicial Court overturned that decision and found that the National Board failed in its duty to provide a proper public accommodation for a woman who was required to be there while she was breast feeding.

The court ruled that a woman who would have to use her break time to pump breast milk would not be afforded the same rights as another applicant who was able to spend that time eating, resting, or using the bathroom.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@globe. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.
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