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Harvard student, new mom, denied extra time for breastfeeding during medical licensing exam


A judge rejected a Harvard student’s request Wednesday for extra break time during her nine-hour medical licensing exam so she could pump breast milk for her infant daughter.

Sophie Currier, 33, sued after the National Board of Medical Examiners turned down her request to take more than the standard 45 minutes in breaks during the exam.

She said that if she does not nurse her 4-month-old daughter, Lea, or pump breast milk every two to three hours, she risks medical complications.

Norfolk Superior Court Judge Patrick Brady said Currier has other options, beyond asking the board to change its rules for her.

“The plaintiff may take the test and pass, notwithstanding what she considers to be unfavorable conditions. The plaintiff may delay the test, which is offered numerous times during the year, until she has finished her breast-feeding and the need to express milk,” he said.

Currier, of Brookline, has finished a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program at Harvard University while having two babies in two years. She has been offered a residency in clinical pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital in November, but cannot accept it unless she passes the test. Her goal is a career in medical research.

Currier has taken the test once already, in April when she was 8 1/2 months pregnant, but she failed by a few points.

“The judge’s conclusion that there is no harm to a woman to putting her career off for a year is the basis of discrimination,” Currier said. “Men do not have to put off their careers because they are feeding a child.”

Her lawyer, Christine Smith Collins, said she would ask the state Appeals Court to hear the case and issue a ruling before Currier takes the test again next week.

Currier has already received special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act for dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, including being granted permission to take the test over two days instead of one.

In the lawsuit, she was seeking an additional 60-minute break on each day. The board cited the need to be consistent in the amount of time given to doctoral candidates and said other nursing mothers who have taken the exam have found the 45 minutes of permitted break time sufficient.

The judge said the board offered Currier several special accommodations, including a separate testing room where she could express milk during the test or during break time, and the option to leave the test center to breast-feed during break times.

Federal anti-discrimination laws do not protect nursing mothers. The Breastfeeding Promotion Act that is pending in Congress would protect women from being fired or punished for pumping milk or nursing.

“Where she’s disabled, we’ve addressed that under federal law, but this is something that is not a disability,” said the board’s attorney, Joseph Savage. “This means it will be somewhat more difficult for her to take the test, but there are a lot of people who face challenges in taking the test childcare obligations, medical conditions that make it harder and we just can’t change the test for everybody who faces a challenge.”


–Associated Press

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