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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Monday, September 17, 2007

Breastfeeding medical student gets day in court

By Felicia Mello, Globe Correspondent

A state judge heard arguments today in the case of a Harvard medical student who is suing for extra break time to pump breast milk during her exam to become a doctor, but postponed a ruling until later this week.

The hearing set the stage for a last-minute decision in the suit filed by Sophie Currier of Brookline, who plans to take the clinical knowledge exam -- the last hurdle she must clear before she can begin her residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital -- next Monday and Tuesday.

Currier's lawyer today asked Judge Patrick Brady of Norfolk Superior Court to issue an injunction forcing the National Board of Medical Examiners to grant Currier, who has a four-month-old daughter, two hours of extra rest periods over the course of the exam. The lawyer accused the board of violating Currier's rights under the state constitution and discriminating against her based on her gender.

"What you're doing is screening out women because they are unable to take care of their dual roles as mothers and professionals," Currier's lawyer, Christine Smith Collins, told the court. "It's unfair, it's unjust, and it's not in the public's interest."

But a lawyer for the board said that making Currier follow the same rules as other test-takers didn't prevent her from breastfeeding, but just made it less convenient.

"One thing we cannot do is change the format for the test, because then we've failed all 50 medical boards that are relying on this and we've failed every other student who takes this test," said board lawyer Joseph Savage.

The board has offered to allow Currier to bring her breast pump into the exam room, and to provide her with an extra room in which to expel milk during her breaks -- though it's unclear whether that room would be monitored. Currier will be allowed to take the test over two days, instead of the normal one, because she has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the board has agreed to give her 45 minutes of break time each day -- the daily amount granted all test-takers.

The case had been moved to federal court last week but was sent back to state court after a federal judge said he could not hear the case until mid-October.

Holding her baby outside the Dedham courthouse after the hearing, Currier, who has started a blog to reach out to mothers in similar situations, said she hoped her case would help them, too.

"It's really about whether women should be protected under the law to breastfeed their children," she said.

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