By Katie Yoder
The U.S. Catholic bishops are confirming their support for the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) amid concerns that the proposed legislation could require employees to pay for abortion expenses.
The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bipartisan bill that promises protections for pregnant employees. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May.
The legislation states that it aims to “eliminate discrimination and promote women’s health and economic security by ensuring reasonable workplace accommodations for workers whose ability to perform the functions of a job are limited by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.”
The bill would require employers with 15 or more employees to make “reasonable accommodations to the known limitations” related to “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” — unless the employer can demonstrate that it would impose an undue hardship.
In a comment to CNA, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) confirmed its support.
“As part of the USCCB’s longstanding advocacy in these areas [for women, children, and families in need], we specifically endorsed the version of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act reported out of the Senate HELP Committee (Aug. 3, 2021), which added key conscience protections for employers,” James Rogers, the chief communications officer for the USCCB, told CNA in a statement.
The USCCB has repeatedly expressed support for the PWFA and encouraged members of Congress to support it as well. This legislation, the bishops say, will empower women rather than enable the destruction of the unborn in abortion.
“We believe that version of the bill, read in light of existing religious liberty protections, helps advance the USCCB’s goal of ensuring that no woman ever feels forced to choose between her future and the life of her child while protecting the conscience rights and religious freedoms of employers,” Rogers added.
He concluded: “We are eager to find a way forward to address any impediments to the bill’s passage.”
Rogers commented on this in light of the bishops’ current work related to the pro-life issue.
“In standing with women, children, and families in need, we should have policies to ensure that pregnant, working women are afforded appropriate accommodations to ensure their own health and the health of their pre-born children,” he told CNA. “The bishops have also articulated a comprehensive vision for the Church and public policy to support families. This includes the Walking with Moms in Need initiative as well as the bishops’ Oct. 26 letter on family supporting public policies in the wake of the Dobbs decision” that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Some groups, such as CatholicVote, have warned that the bill — as it stands — could be used to force employers to pay for abortion-related expenses. They add that the bill does not provide adequate protections for religious organizations.
The Catholic advocacy organization cautioned in November that, in the context of the current legal system and culture at large, “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” includes both contraception and abortion.
The group quoted Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina: “If an employee working for a religious organization requests time off to have an abortion procedure, H.R. 1065 could require the organization to comply with this request as a reasonable accommodation of known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”
In the Senate, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky expressed similar concerns, with a spokesperson telling CNA: “The bill could force religious employers to provide accommodations that arise from an abortion, which could violate the free exercise of their religious beliefs.”
Responding to concerns, a Republican Senate aide told CNA in a statement that “the legislation as introduced does not supersede current law protections for religious employers, which is why this legislation is endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
Unlike the House version, the current version of the PWFA being considered in the Senate explicitly states in its text that the legislation would not require employer-sponsored health plans to pay for certain things — such as abortion.
Under section 7, it specifies that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed … by regulation or otherwise, to require an employer-sponsored health plan to pay for or cover any particular item, procedure, or treatment or to affect any right or remedy available under any other federal, state, or local law with respect to any such payment or coverage requirement.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also supports the PWFA, saying that “no one should be forced to choose between their job and a healthy pregnancy.” While Congress has outlawed pregnancy discrimination, the ACLU warns that employers routinely deny pregnant workers temporary job modifications, from more frequent breaks and schedule changes to reassignment of hazardous tasks.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
The act’s text mirrors the PWFA: “The terms ‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” it reads.
It also clarifies: “This subsection shall not require an employer to pay for health insurance benefits for abortion,” except in cases where the mother’s life is endangered or where there are medical complications arising from an abortion.
The U.S. bishops stress the difference between the 1978 act and the PWFA in a backgrounder.
“While the current set of laws requires an employer to have already made an accommodation for a different worker and for the pregnant worker to be aware of this instance before a reasonable modification is required, the Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act begins by asking if an accommodation is possible,” the bishops say. “This approach is modeled after the well-established Americans with Disabilities Act framework, with which employers are already familiar.”