One story that’s been in the news lately is causing me some concern. It’s about a Harvard medical student, Sophie Currier, who isn’t being allowed to take a pumping or breastfeeding break during an exam which is required of all medical students. This news story has caused a division even among lactivists, with some people saying Currier has been offered “enough” accommodations due to her dyslexia and ADHD and therefore doesn’t need the “extra” time to pump/breastfeed. My opinion is that if she has ADHD and dyslexia, then accommodations made for those circumstances aren’t related at all to her lactational state, so why is that being brought up at all? So she’s being given accommodations. Big deal! If a man were to have ADHD and dyslexia, he’d be given the same accommodations. If the same man were to also have cancer, for example, he’d be given accommodations for his ADHD and dyslexia, and, I would think that additional accommodations would be made for his cancer condition as well. And if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be outraged if he tried to rectify that. I wouldn’t say, “Well, he just wants attention!” And I don’t think anyone else would either… Well, not compassionate people anyway.
Why is this case any different (other than the fact that Sophie Currier doesn’t have cancer or other life-threatening condition)? Well, because this is a woman’s issue. And when something is a woman’s issue, then it’s “women needing attention” and “women wanting special treatment.” It doesn’t ever seem to be interpreted as, “Even though it’s never been done before, this is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed.” Oh no. That would be way too reasonable.
I don’t think letting a woman take pumping breaks during a test, no matter how big and important, is an unreasonable accommodation, given that she’s lactating. I think any woman who is lactating should be allowed pumping or breastfeeding breaks, period. The time between them shouldn’t be longer than three hours, because that’s about the longest a nursing baby would go without breastfeeding (if it’s during a growth spurt, it could be as often as every ten minutes, but I’m compromising here for the sake of reasonableness). Lactating breasts that aren’t emptied regularly, whether by breastfeeding or pumping, become engorged rather quickly, and this engorgement can range from uncomfortable to painful and can be very distracting. I can only imagine what it must be like to take a high-pressure test like the United States Medical Licensing Exam while dealing with a constant throbbing pain in the breasts… Not to mention, if the breasts aren’t emptied, it could cause problems like plugged ducts and a breast infection called mastitis. I’ve experienced dozens of episodes of plugged ducts personally, and a few cases of mastitis. They are both debilitating and painful conditions which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s much better to prevent them than to cure them. In severe cases of mastitis, a breast abscess (link to picture which may not be safe for work) could occur, which could require surgery. It’s a terrible idea to not allow a lactating woman to pump/breastfeed when it’s clear an accommodation must be made for this.
(It’s actually more than a little ironic that an exam which is a requirement of becoming a doctor wouldn’t make accommodations for a lactating mother given that the AAP and AMA both recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life, and thereafter, continued breastfeeding for twelve months (in addition to the introduction of solids). Most medical institutions don’t give an upper limit for breastfeeding, leaving it at the discretion of the mother and child — “as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” Currier’s baby is four months old now, and in need of exclusive breastfeeding, as per the AAP’s recommendation.)
Some comments I’ve read on the web regarding this: “But she shouldn’t have had kids in the middle of medical school if she was going to need accommodations!” Here’s my response to this: Try being a twentysomething woman who wants to hold off on having kids for x, y, or z reason (could be as simple as “haven’t found the right partner yet.” … Or it could be that she did try to have kids earlier, but she couldn’t get pregnant until she reached her thirties. Not everything in life can be controlled!) Then try being a thirtysomething woman, with your biological clock ticking, while you’re in medical school. Sure, you could wait another decade while you sort out your career fully and then try to have kids…. But you know that if you do that, you’re taking a grave fertility risk. Statistics show that it is much harder to conceive after forty than when you’re in your thirties. It’s actually pretty common knowledge, which is why so many women wind up having kids even while they’re getting their careers sorted. True, some women sacrifice one for the other, as is their prerogative, but other women want to have both, and work hard to achieve both, …and why is that wrong, exactly? Ohhhh… That’s right. I almost forgot. It’s the old “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” conundrum. Of course.
Personally, I don’t see how giving her (and every other mom who takes that test — and other tests like it for that matter) the very reasonable pumping/breastfeeding accommodation would affect her ability to be a good doctor. If she passes the test, she passes, and she should move on to residency, etc. I just don’t see why giving her this reasonable accommodation is turning into such a tooth-pulling exercise. The only reason why she’s asking for it is because she’s lactating, and stopping lactation is out of the question. It is discriminatory (and hypocritical, considering the institution which this test is for) to not allow pumping breaks. Full stop.
Update: Not surprisingly, the judge ruled against giving her the twenty minute breaks. She asked for twenty minutes for each day she took the test and was not granted them. Ridiculous that she had to go to court to try and get this time, and even more ridiculous that she wasn’t given it, but there you go.