A Harvard medical student and new mother will not be permitted to take extra break time to pump breast milk during her licensing exam to become a doctor, a judge ruled yesterday.
On Sept. 6, Sophie Currier of Brookline sued the National Board of Medical Examiners, arguing that the board violated her constitutional right to breast-feed by denying her more than the 45 minutes of rest periods allotted to all test takers. She also accused the board of gender discrimination.
Currier, who has a 4-month-old daughter, must pass the exam before she can graduate and begin a residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital in the fall.
In a three-page opinion, Norfolk Superior Court Judge Patrick Brady said Currier could still find a way to expel her milk during the test or on regularly scheduled breaks.
"The plaintiff may take the test and pass, notwithstanding what she considers to be unfavorable conditions," Brady wrote. "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."
Brady also ruled that the private board could not be considered a state agency, a requirement for proving at least one of Currier's claims.
Currier's lawyer, Christine Smith Collins, said she will appeal the decision to a state Appeals Court judge, who could issue a ruling before Currier takes the exam Monday and Tuesday.
"Basically," Collins said, "the judge decided it's OK to tell women to wait until they are done being moms to become professionals, which as far as I'm concerned is not acceptable in this day and age."
The board has offered to allow Currier to bring her breast pump into the exam room and to provide her with a private extra room in which to expel milk during her breaks.
Currier will be allowed to take the test over two days, instead of the normal one, because she has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the board has agreed to give her 45 minutes of break time each day, the daily amount granted all test-takers. Currier wants an additional hour of break time each day.
But the board argued that it would be unfair to other test takers to allow Currier more time for a condition not recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The national board thinks that breast-feeding is a fine thing to do, but it also thinks that having a standardized examination for licensure is also really important," said board spokesman Ken Cotton.
He said the board periodically reviews its testing policies and will consider increasing break time for all exam takers, a solution he said would be more consistent than making an exception for Currier.
Currier's request for extra time drew support from advocates of breast-feeding and from women who contacted her to report difficulties taking the exam while lactating.
The presidents of the Massachusetts Medical Society and the state association of obstetricians wrote a letter to the medical examiners board in July urging it to consider granting her request.
Currier has started a blog about her experience and has said she hoped her case would draw national attention to the problems faced by nursing mothers.
"It's really about whether women should be protected under the law to breast-feed their children," she said after a court hearing yesterday.
Lactating women can experience pain and risk developing infections of their breasts if they don't expel milk at least once every three hours, said Dr. Alison Stuebe, a clinical fellow in obstetrics at Brigham and Women's Hospital who filed an affidavit in support of Currier.
Stuebe said she feared the court's verdict might discourage women from pursuing medical careers.
"Half of medical students are women, and they are in their childbearing years," she said, "so the chances that at least one of their licensing exams will coincide with the time that they are breast-feeding is quite high."
A federal Breastfeeding Promotion Act now pending in Congress would protect breast-feeding women from being fired or discriminated against, and provide tax incentives for employers who set aside areas for women to nurse or pump milk.