Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (or PDA, not to be confused with “public displays of affection”) in 1978 as an amendment to Title VII. The PDA was a direct response to the case of General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976), in which the Supreme Court decided that pregnancy discrimination was not necessarily sex discrimination—and, therefore, was not necessarily illegal under Title VII.
In the Gilbert case, the Supreme Court found that General Electric's disability program, which paid some wage replacement while employees were unable to work, did not discriminate against women. Even though the program didn’t pay benefits for disability due to pregnancy or childbirth, the Court found that the plan did not discriminate because it offered the same benefits package to men and women.
If a man and a woman both suffered the same disability, both would be covered by the plan. That only women can become pregnant didn’t constitute sex discrimination because not all women do. Quoting an earlier decision on a similar issue (although decided based on the Constitution, not Title VII), the Court stated that the pregnancy exclusion and the protected class (women) were not the same in that the plan didn’t differentiate between men and women, but between pregnant women and non-pregnant persons, who might be male or female. In other words, because not all women would become pregnant, the plan didn't negatively affect all women. Therefore, it didn't discriminate on the basis of sex.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was Congress's direct response to the Gilbert decision. The PDA states that discrimination based on sex includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions in any aspect of employment. The PDA also gets more specific about disability programs and other benefits: It extends the prohibition on pregnancy discrimination to include the “receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
Under the PDA, employers must treat employees who are temporarily unable to work due to pregnancy just as they treat employees who are temporarily disabled for other reasons, no worse and no better. In addition, employers may not engage in the many types of discrimination that used to occur regularly, such as firing women or requiring them to stop working when they were “showing,” refusing to hire pregnant women on the assumption that they would stop working once they had a child, and so on.
However, the PDA doesn't require employers to make any special benefits available only to pregnant women. For example, the PDA doesn't require employers to offer pregnancy leave, unless it offers temporary disability leave to employees who are unable to work for other reasons. If an employer suspends benefits and seniority rights for all employees who take more than a month off work, it may do the same for employees who need this time off due to a medically complicated pregnancy. Although the Family and Medical Leave and similar state laws may require employers to provide time off (and continued benefits) in these circumstances, the PDA does not. (See our Time Off Work section for more information on these leave laws.)
The PDA also protects women from discrimination based on their potential to become pregnant. For example, an employer cannot exclude all women of childbearing years from jobs that require contact with toxic chemicals or other substances that could lead to birth defects. And, the PDA protects women from discrimination based on childbirth and related conditions. For example, a woman who needs time off to recover from a miscarriage or a difficult birth has the same rights under the PDA as a woman who needs time off for pregnancy.