Tough choices

October 09, 1990

Tomorrow the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case that could reverse decades of progress by women in the workplace, but that could also help protect fetuses by making sure that their mothers aren't exposed to dangerous levels of toxic substances. Welcome to the world of tough choices.

In this case, the United Auto Workers union is suing Johnson Controls, a Milwaukee-based company that bars women from jobs where there are high risks of lead exposure unless they can medically document their infertility. Upholding such policies as constitutional could mean that women may potentially be excluded from millions of industrial jobs for virtually all of their working lives, regardless of whether they choose to have children. But the absence of such policies may mean that a woman who did not intend to get pregnant may inadvertently expose a developing fetus to substances that will have damaging, even tragic effects.

No one would argue that a fetus doesn't deserve protection. But the question of who should provide it -- and how -- deserves plenty of careful thought. Blanket policies like Johnson's may do more harm than good. Is it right to adopt policies that will equally penalize women of 50 who have completed their families, women of 20 who intend to postpone childbearing, as well as women of 40 who don't want children at all? What about fertile men; is there sufficient evidence that elevated levels of toxic substances will not harm their offspring too? Moreover, shouldn't companies put their efforts into reducing exposure to harmful substances for all their workers, rather than invading the privacy of some workers in order to impose on them a protective policy they may not need?

Tough choices, yes. On balance, however, we believe those choices are better left with women and men, not corporations.

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