Geduldig v. Aiello

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417 U.S. 484 (1974), argued 26 Mar. 1974, decided 17 June 1974 by vote of 6 to 3; Stewart for the Court, Brennan in dissent. Pregnancy was the topic of two important Supreme Court decisions in its 1973 term. In January, Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur (1974) effectively ended mandatory maternity leaves. Anyone who thought that LaFleur signaled a new judicial sensitivity to women's rights was quickly disillusioned by Geduldig, decided in June.

Carolyn Aiello was one of three state employees who challenged California's disability benefits system. This plan, financed by salary deductions, excluded from coverage any hospitalization resulting from a normal pregnancy. The workers claimed that the denial of pregnancy benefits constituted sex discrimination and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court upheld the law, although it had already been amended to include pregnancy. Justice Potter Stewart pointed out that LaFleur had relied, not on equal protection, but on due process, and was therefore not a precedent to be followed. California's policy benefits, he said, bore the required rational relationship to the state's legitimate goal of reducing costs. And the law did not discriminate against women; instead, it merely distinguished between pregnant women and all other (i.e., nonpregnant) persons: “There is no risk from which men are protected and women are not” (pp. 496–497). Justice William Brennan disagreed, writing in his dissent that policy distinctions based on “physical characteristics inextricably linked to one sex” denied equal protection (p. 501). The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 enacted the dissenters’ view by requiring equal treatment for pregnant employees.

Judith A. Baer

Subjects: Law.

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