Not long after congressional enactment of Title VII, pregnant workers began to file claims alleging sex discrimination. The statute provided that it was unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a woman because of sex, but it was silent with regard to pregnancy. 1 Thus the courts were confronted with the question whether “because of sex” included “because of pregnancy.” The early pregnancy cases concluded with victories for the complainants, 2 but the Supreme Court, rarely a leader in matters relating to civil rights in employment, declared in a case involving the General Electric Company that discrimination against pregnant women was not barred by Title VII.
After General Electric adopted a disability plan that afforded its employees sickness and injury benefits but excluded benefits for disabilities arising from pregnancy, a group of female workers brought a class action against the company, claiming that the exclusion of pregnancy from the terms of the plan amounted to an act of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The trial court agreed, declaring that discrimination against pregnant women is a form of sex discrimination, and thus the exclusion of pregnancy from the plan was discriminatory. But the Supreme Court thought otherwise. The Court, speaking through Justice Rehnquist, first noted that pregnancy is merely a physical condition, and an employer is free to include or exclude disability coverage for pregnancy just as for any other physical condition. In Justice Rehnquist's view, the GE plan did not afford coverage for any disability or illness that excluded either women or men. “There is no risk from which men are protected and women are not. Likewise, there is no risk from which women are protected