WASHINGTON — IN a far-reaching sex discrimination case, the United States Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that it is unlawful for employers to refuse to hire women capable of having children on grounds that their jobs might expose them to toxic substances that could harm developing fetuses or a woman's ability to conceive. The ruling raises the possibility of two significant effects:
More job opportunities for pregnant and fertile women in work that employers consider hazardous to the health of fetuses and the ability to conceive.
More court suits by women who assert that conditions where they work have harmed their unborn children.
When this ``fetal protection'' case was argued before the Supreme Court five months ago, legal experts called it one of the three or four most important cases on this session's court agenda. Legal scholar Bruce Fein said the ruling could affect the ability of women to compete for as many as 20 million jobs that to some degree could be considered potentially hazardous to the health of the unborn.
The defendant in the case - Johnson Controls Inc., an auto-battery manufacturer - excluded women capable of childbearing from jobs in which they would be exposed to lead.
The court decision would go a long way, scholars said, toward determining whether an employer could legally discriminate in work assignments against pregnant or fertile women in order to prevent possible harm to their unborn or to their reproductive systems.
In its Wednesday ruling the court unanimously came down sharply against employers.
In barring women of child-bearing age from battery-manufacturing jobs, Johnson Controls acted illegally, the court said, agreeing with eight female employees who complained that company policy violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
In addition to the overall ruling, a five-member majority of the Supreme Court stressed that it is always up to women, not employers, to decide whether they should take jobs that companies consider to have the potential for harming the unborn.
Several other major US corporations have fetal-protection policies.