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Co-worker’s Push for Abortion Supports Harassment Claim


Things got uncomfortable at Penn State University’s on-campus hotel when a dishwasher there informed a married co-worker that she was pregnant with his baby, according to a complaint filed recently in federal court in Harrisburg, Doe v. Pennsylvania State University.

The co-worker began pressuring her to get an abortion, called her a “wh-re,” and harassed her at work and after hours.  When she asked her supervisor to change her schedule so that she could avoid working with him, the supervisor reduced their overlapping shifts but still scheduled them together at times. Human Resources, in response to her complaint of harassment, offered her a lower-level job in housekeeping.

The employee walked off the job soon after, texting Human Resources that she was being harassed and “pushed out the door.” She sued for sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, which incorporates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Penn State moved to dismiss the claim on summary judgment, arguing there was no evidence of verbal or physical harassment and, as to the pressure to get an abortion, “difficult family planning conversations do not necessarily constitute gender-based harassment.”[1]

The court disagreed, noting that many of the alleged conversations occurred at work between co-workers, that protection against harassment based on pregnancy was “among the core important values protected by Title VII,” and that a reasonable person in the employee’s position “could have been detrimentally impacted by repeatedly being called a whore and told she should get an abortion.” You think?

Regardless of whether one favors the “right to choose” or the “right to life,” employers should take care to avoid or defuse disputes relating to abortion at work. As the Doe case makes clear, a woman is protected from discrimination and harassment based on conditions related to pregnancy, including whether or not she chooses to have an abortion.

Michael Homans is an employment lawyer and litigator based in Philadelphia and Wayne, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at or (215) 419-7477.

[1] Pregnant pause. . . . Apparently, Penn State still has some of the aggressive defense instincts it used so famously in the Sandusky matters.

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