Human Rights

Don't Pregnant Women Have Rights Too? Woman Booted From Bar for Having a Baby Bump

There is no law barring pregnant women from entering bars, and yet a woman in Illinois was thrown out of one last week.

One evening late last week, Michelle Lee was at a suburban Chicago bar with some friends, drinking a glass of water and eyeing the pizza menu. It was a seemingly calm, normal night out with the ladies. And yet, 15 minutes after Lee and her friends arrived, a bouncer approached Lee and asked her to leave.

"He just said, if anything happens, if a fight breaks out and you get hurt, we are responsible," Lee told the Chicago Tribune.

Why was the bouncer so concerned about being "responsible" for Lee? Because she is eight months pregnant.

Though shocked and humiliated, Lee agreed to leave the bar. "I thought maybe there was some sort of pregnant woman ordinance," she said in an interview with ABC.

There is no law barring pregnant women from entering bars, pubs or other establishments that sell alcohol, just as there is no law against serving alcohol to pregnant women. (Lee was not consuming alcohol at the Coach House.) Among many reasons why such a law would be problematic, there is the obvious issue: how do you enforce such a law if it is impossible to determine with the naked eye that a woman is pregnant? Some pregnant women "look pregnant" by traditional standards, while others, including women who do not yet know they are pregnant, do not. So should there be mandatory pregnancy tests for all women before they're served a drink? Or should the law only apply to women who "look" pregnant? You get the idea.

Over the weekend, as Lee discussed the Coach House incident with family and friends, she became increasingly angry. She's now thinking of hiring an attorney. Lee's potential legal battle would center around whether the Coach House had the right to refuse service to her on the grounds that she is (visibly and admittedly) pregnant. Although there is no "pregnant woman ordinance," private establishments do have the right to refuse service to anyone they wish, unless -- and this is critical -- the establishment is being unconstitutionally discriminatory.

So the real question is whether the Coach House was acting unconstitutionally when it kicked Lee out of the establishment. The American Civil Liberties Union thinks it was. "There are certain things for which you are not able to discriminate against someone, and one is their gender," ACLU spokesperson Ed Yohnka told the Tribune. "And only women can have babies. You can't discriminate against a pregnant person."

Furthermore, Lee has on her side the Illinois Human Rights Act, which states that "it is unlawful to discriminate in the full and equal enjoyment of facilities and services by any place of public accommodation."

Even so, the fight might not be an easy one, considering the right-wing faction of our nation's Supreme Court. The National Organization for Women pointed out those challenges on its blog this week:

Recently, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reiterated his belief that the Constitution does not prohibit sex discrimination....Let's say that Michelle Lee takes her case to the courts. Let's say that case makes it all the way up to Justice Scalia. Given his stated interpretation of the 14th Amendment (which states all persons are entitled to equal protection under the laws) as not including women, and the text and legislative history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's not crazy to imagine him saying it was just fine for the [Coach House] to kick her out.

Which is why, NOW argues, an equal rights amendment for women should be added to the Constitution:

[I]t remains more urgent than ever to ensure our Constitution includes an explicit guarantee of equality for women. Sex discrimination is not a joke, and the results of sex discrimination are often far worse than getting turned away for a slice of pizza -- it can include getting turned away from health care that only women use, or getting paid less, or not having proper recourse for rape or sexual assault.

The incident at the Coach House is about more than being allowed to socialize at a bar while carrying a fetus. It's about the broader rights of women, including those who are pregnant, to have control over their own bodies. As NOW president Terry O'Neill observed, "We live in a country where people feel increasingly empowered to make decisions for pregnant woman."

Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Change.org, The L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.
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