In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, many private employers in the United States enacted fetal protection policies that barred fertile women—that is, women who had not been surgically sterilized—from working in jobs that might expose fetuses to toxins. In Fetal Rights, Women’s Rights, Suzanne Samuels analyzes these policies and the ambiguous responses to them by federal and state courts, legislatures, administrative agencies, litigants, and interest groups. She poses provocative questions about the implicit links between social welfare concerns and paternalism in the workplace, including: are women workers or wombs?
Placing the fetal protection controversy within the larger societal debate about gender roles, Samuels argues that governmental decision-makers confuse sex, which is based solely on biological characteristics, with gender, which is based on societal conceptions. She contends that the debate about fetal protection policies brought this ambiguity into stark relief, and that the response of policy-makers was rooted in assumptions about gender roles. Judges, legislators, and regulators used gender as a proxy, she argues, to sidestep the question of whether fetal protection policies could be justified by the biological differences between women and men.
The fetal protection controversy raises a number of concerns about women's role in the workplace. Samuels discusses the effect on governmental policies of the ongoing controversy over abortion rights and the debates between egalitarian and relational feminists about the treatment of women at work. A timely and engrossing study, Fetal Rights, Women's Rights details the pattern of gender politics in the United States and demonstrates the broader ramifications of gender bias in the workplace.