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Breastfeeding Mom Has a Case Over Exam Breaks

(CN) - The National Board of Medical Examiners may be liable for denying additional break time to a nursing mother taking its licensure exam, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled.

While studying medicine at Harvard in June 2007, Sophie Currier planned to take the board's clinical knowledge exam in Brookline. The 370-question test is administered in one testing session that lasts about nine hours. Test-takers usually get 45 minutes of break time, and they cannot bring personal items into the shared exam room.

The board granted Currier an additional day to complete the test, which she could take in a separate testing room, because of her diagnosed dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Currier was unhappy, however, with the break-time accommodations for Currier to feed her infant daughter.

After Currier filed suit in September 2007, the court the board to afford Currier an additional 60 minutes of break time per test day and provide her with a private room with a power outlet at the testing center so she could express breast milk.

Currier apparently did not pass the exam with these accommodations but was more successful in her second attempt the following year.

Though a Suffolk County judge dismissed Currier's lawsuit, the Supreme Judicial Court said last week that some of the claims should go to trial.

Currier can claim a violation of the equal rights act and public accommodations law, according to the six-justice panel.

"Our decision in the context of the equal rights act and public accommodation statute counts, that lactation is a sex-linked classification, recognizes that there remain barriers that prevent new mothers from being able to breastfeed or express breast milk," Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote for the court. "We take this opportunity to extend protection to lactating mothers in the context of lengthy testing required for medical licensure."

A footnote of the 28-page decision notes that the Massachusetts Legislature prohibited restrictions on breastfeeding in public, but the law did not include using a breast pump to express milk for future use.

"The condition of lactation is inextricably linked to pregnancy and thus sex linked," Ireland wrote. "The fact that a women (sic) is no longer pregnant when she is nursing or pumping matters not as lactation is a natural incident of pregnancy. We thus conclude that the protections of the equal rights act extend to lactating mothers."

But the six-justice panel affirmed dismissal of Currier's claim under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, finding the denial of extra time did not amount to "coercion."

"Here, the NBME did not prohibit Currier from expressing breast milk; rather, the NBME prohibited Currier from expressing breast milk when she wanted to, namely, during two requested additional break times," Ireland wrote.

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