Why all the silence around the breast-feeding test-taker?

Why all the silence around the breast-feeding test-taker?

Why all the silence around the breast-feeding test-taker?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 28 2007 6:31 PM

Express Yourselves

Why all the silence around the breast-feeding test-taker?

Sophie Currier and her daughter, Lea. Click image to expand.
Sophie Currier and her daughter Lea

This week's story about the Harvard med student who won extra time to take her state boards in order to pump breast milk for her 4-month-old baby is making the rounds. Yet everyone who forwards this story around seems to do so in an otherwise empty e-mail. If this was a big win for feminism, it was of the silent variety.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

I can understand why most of the male columnists aren't weighing in. Not only is the legal right to breast-feed one of the ickiest of controversies (just ask John Dickerson about the time I spilled breast milk all over his office carpet), but the whole idea of breast pads and electric double-barreled high-velocity breast pumps throws most men into terrified catatonia. With a few exceptions, of course: Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times has offered up an ode to the woman on the train who "wordlessly flops out a swollen breast and begins firing hot streams of foamy milk into the yearning, baby-sparrow mouth of her tot, or toddler, or 5-year-old child."

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Thanks Neil. But where are you, oh my sisters, on this question? I have found hundreds of news stories on this student—and exactly three opinion columns, counting Steinberg's. Why the roaring silence? Didn't Sophie Currier of Brookline, Mass., do the women's movement a favor this week by scoring extra time to pump during her nine-hour medical boards?

Judge Gary Katzmann of the Massachusetts appeals court thinks so. On Wednesday, he overturned an earlier state Superior Court decision denying her any more than the 45-minute break allotted the other test-takers over a nine-hour test period. The lower court had determined that if that break was insufficient, "the plaintiff may delay the test, which is offered numerous times during the year, until she has finished her breast-feeding and the need to express milk."

Katzmann disagreed. "In order to put the petitioner on equal footing as the male and non-lactating female examinees, she must be provided with sufficient time to pump breast milk and to address the same physiological and other functions to which those examinees are able to attend," he wrote. Forcing her to pump, eat, and use the restroom in the allocated time, or forgo pumping altogether—thus endangering her health if she becomes engorged and infected—is unfair: "Under either avenue, [Currier] is placed at significant disadvantage in comparison to her peers."

Lis Wiehl at Fox News applauds this result. One of the few columnists to take the story on, she writes: "Why should [Currier] suffer and risk her own livelihood when Joe Schmoe, taking the same test, sits comfortably in the testing facility?" Wiehl points out the outrageousness of asking Currier to sit out the exam until her baby is weaned. Currier can neither graduate from med school nor begin her scheduled residency until she passes the licensing exam. The lower court judge was thus essentially instructing her to defer her paycheck and loan repayment until her kids were older.

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Currier's critics (I count two) include Dianne Williamson at the Worcester Telegram & Gazettewho quotes a friend saying, "I was kind of thinking that she should get over herself. She's like, 'Hey, I've got a baby, I'm entitled.' This generation X and Y is pretty self-absorbed. They got trophies just for showing up." Williamson feels the board made ample accommodation when it offered to let Currier bring her breast pump into the exam room and provide her with a private room in which to pump during her breaks. And does it really take a whole hour to pump?

Like most of my friends, I've gone back and forth on this, but I confess that the real mystery to me is the silence from some of my favorite women columnists and bloggers. Is it that women aren't certain we ought to be allowed to pump and test-take? Is it that we just don't want Currier as our test case? Or have we been so beaten down by these so-called "Mommy Wars" that we're afraid to hazard an opinion?

We've been advised by the media—at regular three-month intervals over the past few years—that stay-at-home moms are engaged in an apocalyptic battle with working moms. But Sophie Currier reads as a tricky hybrid. What the heck is this breast-feeding mother of two doing taking her medical boards? Then again, she isn't the ideal poster mom for the briefcase brigade, either—because hey, we didn't ask for special treatment while we were pumping. But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that this is actually a cause both sides ought to get together on.

To be sure, Currier can make it hard to get behind her. It's harder to sympathize, for instance, when we learn that she is already getting a whole extra day to take the test because she has ADHD and dyslexia, or that she received extra accommodation in her schooling as well, as a result of the learning disabilities. Suddenly, some women may feel she isn't a pioneer for the rights of working moms. She's a crybaby and an opportunist.

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Oh, and a crap doctor to boot.

It's also easy to lump Currier in with the pants judge, the God-suer, and the coffee-spillers, all of whom race off to court the instant they are thwarted. But Currier's decision to sue, and her ADHD, and her appearances on morning TV, actually have nothing to do with the real question: Why shouldn't she get extra time to pump? Don't nursing women deserve equal opportunities to be certified?

The National Board of Medical Examiners has just appealed Judge Katzmann's ruling. "If we are variable in the time that's allotted to trainees, we alter the performance of the examination," board spokeswoman Dr. Ruth Hoppe has said. One of the things the boards test for is how one deals in a time-crunch situation. And giving test-takers who don't suffer from disabilities as defined under the ADA extra time harms other test takers.

I find it hard to fathom what difference a few extra moments spent pumping would really make. I find it doubly hard to grasp why the medical establishment wouldn't bend their rules to accommodate two undeniably important public health values: breast-feeding, and increasing the numbers of women in the profession.

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The lack of support for Currier from other working moms must stem at least somewhat from the fact that we sucked it up and pumped in airplane bathrooms, dirty gas stations, and judicial confirmation hearings. Why does she get to make a fuss about it?

I also can't quite shake the sense that some of my stay-at-home friends are finding it hard to get behind Currier because, well, what the heck is she thinking trying to pass the medical boards with two small kids at home?

One final possibility for our collective ambivalence about a Harvard-educated doctor trying to raise two kids and work at the same time: I wonder if the illusion of the Mommy Wars has cowed us all into silence, into believing that if we don't express ourselves on this subject, we can avoid another round of girl-on-girl nastiness in the public sphere.

But here's another way to think of it: If we can't stand up for a woman with a brilliant career who is fighting to care for her babies as she chooses—values we ostensibly all share—you really have to wonder if we can stand up for anyone at all.