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Using Pregnancy Tests in Hiring Discrimination Against Women (or Ma Bell Rejects Pregnant Belles)
by Rita Arditti
When my friend Steve1 suggested that he could get me two films on pregnancy testing to show in my biology class at Boston University I was delighted. I wanted my students to learn how to do a pregnancy test but also to find about the general state of the problem today. The purpose was to show them how simple and cheap the tests really are. It is possible now to do an accurate test in two minutes and detect the pregnancy 10 days after the missed period. The test is very easy and women could do it at home for 95 cents (instead of the 6 to 12 dollars that clinical laboratories charge).
Anyhow, let’s thank the Lord that quick, good tests are around. Right? Who would deny their benefit for women? Well, it turns out that just like everything else, these tests can and are being used against women…
One of the films that Steve gave me was called “Pregnancy testing in the 70’s”. It was a panel discussion between six members of the medical profession. The trend of the discussion was how important routine early pregnancy tests are, since women could go into X-ray therapy, for instance, unaware of their pregnancy with possible harmful effects to the child. However, one of the participants to the panel, Dr. Lawrence A. Pyle Jr., General Medical director (the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Companies) was not really concerned about the mother or the child. His concern was, believe it or not, the Telephone company.
The chairman of the panel, Dr. Elizabeth Connell from Columbia University, asks Dr. Pyle about his interest in the tests as an industrial physician. Dr. Pyle: “Well, I’m very much interested in it because we had a problem with hiring people in early pregnancy. We felt we had to overcome this and as a result we have gone to routine pregnancy testing in applicants for employment.”
After a while, candid Dr. Pyle became a little more explicit: “Well, hiring pregnant women has always posed a problem for us in the Medical Department. It is even more important, I think, to supervisors who are interested in training new employees. We had to find some way to stop hiring people in early pregnancy. They would be put into training programs at a fair amount of expense and by the the time they’d finished their training and were ready to become effective employees, it was necessary for them to go off on a pregnancy leave of absence.” Do the women know they are going to be tested for pregnancy? No, says misty-eyed Dr. Pyle: “We do ask the applicant for a specimen of urine, don’t tell her what we’re going to do with it, and she gives this freely to us and we test it.” Is this type of screening procedure spreading among industry? Yes, he says, particularly in the Bell system, for instance in New Jersey Bell and in Southern Bell, both of which include large numbers of women employees. He adds that most of the people who come up positive in the tests were trying to hide their pregnancies. He has been doing this job for a year, tested 2000 female applicants, and uncovered 38 pregnancies. He has saved the company about 27,000 dollars.
By the end of the film2 I was shaking. The wonderful 2-minute test glowed like a diabolic invention. Those 38 women (and how many more since then?) apparently knew they were pregnant and they went to look for a job. But Dr. Pyle was there, to “save” money for the company. Does the money he saves even cover his salary?
That the medical profession openly discriminates against women, is not hot news anymore. What is peculiarly striking in this case is that recent technological advances, supposedly developed to help women, are openly being used against them.
For instance, in March 1970, The FDA announced its intention to require all oral contraceptive manufacturers to enclose a 600-word warning of hazards in packages going directly to the patient. This was violently opposed by the physicians and the drug houses on the ground that it was violating the supposedly sacred doctor-patient relationship. The AMA considered any direct communication between the agency (a 3rd party) and the women as an intrusion. There was even talk of a legal action against the FDA.
Again, that a patient is the private property of her doctor, no hot news. Except, that when the motive is clear-cut straight economic profit and the third party is the Telephone Co., nobody seems to mind. Which made me wonder about the whole field of so-called “industrial medicine”. Surely this is no isolated case. Doctors check people for maximum efficiency at work, patch them up quickly to send them back to assembly lines, and expose those hardcore criminals: pregnant women looking for a job. The role that physicians play in the context of a factory or of a company shows rather clearly whose interests they serve.
Which all boils down to what we already knew: that scientific and technological progress can not be separated from the applications which it is going to be put into.
Thank you so much, Dr. Pyle, for furnishing us with such a fine example of advances in technology to the service of economic oppression.
FINAL FOOTNOTE FOR DR PYLE
Dr. Pyle candidly discusses his work for the Telephone Company in Journal of Occupational Medicine, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 26-27, Jan. 1970.