What If Pregnancy Came With a Pink Slip?

Molly and mommy on TV set

Carrie Lukas, like many working moms, has had to deal with being pregnant at work. Lukas, a vice president at the Independent Women's Forum, often writes and speaks out about social issues. This past summer, Lukas became pregnant with her third child.

"This will be my third maternity leave in four years, and it does mean that I have to take time off," said Lukas.

Pregnant in the Workplace
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Pregnancy leave is an ingrained feature of the American workplace, ensuring that women won't face termination for starting families. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says it is illegal to fire, or not hire, a woman because she is pregnant.

But moms like Lukas say the law has unintended consequences.

"If my employer decides they no longer want me as an employee, then it should be their right to fire me," said Lukas. "I understand the desire for people to have the government step in and try to protect women, but there's real costs to government intervention."

These costs are rarely talked about publicly. But it is just a fact that some employers avoid hiring people who fall into special, Congress-protected groups. After the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, it was assumed many more disabled people would enter the workplace, but a study by MIT economists found that employment actually "dropped sharply."

Pregnant on the job
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Complaints Point to Possible Failure of Discrimination Law

Holly Waters also took time off when her daughter was born. But in Holly's case, she had no choice. When she became pregnant, she was a sales consultant for the drug maker Novartis. She said she was a top performer with a promising career, but when she told her boss she was pregnant, she said, things changed.

"I was almost being pushed out the door," explained Waters.

And then, when she was about to go on maternity leave, she was fired.

"I was 7½ months pregnant. There was no way I was going to be able to go out and find a job at this point," said Waters.

VIDEO: Debating Pregnancy Discrimination at Work
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Today, employers are warned that in job interviews you must never even ask questions like "Might you start a family?" But if Congress thought the Pregnancy Discrimination Act would end discrimination, it was wrong. In recent years, complaints have steadily gone up.

Laws 'Actually End Up Hurting Women'

Companies like Google, Bloomberg LP, even a maternity clothing chain, have all been sued for pregnancy violations.

And now, Waters, and some 5,000 other women, are suing Novartis.

The companies deny wrongdoing. Novartis told "20/20" it "strongly disagreed with the allegations." It also noted that Working Mother magazine had recognized Novartis as one of the 100 best employers.

Nonsense, said Waters' lawyer, David Sanford, of Sanford, Wittels & Heisler, who has filed a class action against Novartis.

"The message is that if you get pregnant you're in trouble at Novartis," said Sanford.

Sanford wants Novartis to pay his clients and his law firm more than $200 million. The lawsuit, he said, will teach Novartis and other companies not to discriminate.

"If you're pregnant, there are certain protections in place, and there should be certain protections in place," said Sanford.

Most people agree with that, but not everyone. Lukas said laws like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act may actually create problems for women.

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