Make Room at the Debate

There is still no consensus in the United States about whether caring for children is a worthy expenditure of women’s time. In surveys and in their concrete choices, women express and demonstrate strong interests in caring for children. At the same time, the federal government and influential interest groups insist, in the context of their three-year-old campaign in favor of the Health and Human Services’ “contraceptive mandate,” that the power to avoid childbearing virtually grounds women’s freedom. Some women agree with them.

The contradiction matters. It could be harmful to badmouth caretaking, if—as is likely the case and even recent history indicates—women continue to mother in large numbers. Also, policies about avoiding childbearing could continue to suck all the oxygen out of the room, as they have done in the past, when the topic turns to helping women and men care for children while facing poverty and juggling employment. Parents need a range of policies, and children need caretakers who enjoy community support.

For Catholics, welcoming children is closely tied to the meaning of life— to being a “person for others.” Family is the earliest place we are called to exercise loving service. This is not about denying women the paid work we want or need to do. It is not denying that we expect men, likewise, to be “men for others” in the family realm. It is rather concluding that in light of women’s continuing choices about mothering, we must honestly engage the matter of the standing of women’s caretaking.

The federal government and some interest groups, however, increasingly deny that there is a difference of opinion among women. They label opposition to the H.H.S. mandate a war on women, or an attack on “lady parts.” In the government’s brief in the Hobby Lobby case, it argued that free contraception is essential to destroying the “barriers...plagu[ing]” women’s economic, social and political integration, and women’s “equal access to...goods, privileges and advantages.” Sometimes the government’s arguments talk about women’s health, poor women’s access to contraception or reducing abortions; but these are not its leading arguments. This is evident from the lack of care with which they are crafted. Few sources are cited and many sources are inapposite or hopelessly biased. Opposing data and logical arguments are ignored.

It should shock no one that women do not monolithically agree about the mandate or even about the relationship between caretaking and women’s freedom. Nearly 90 percent of women have a child at some point in their lifetime; 84 percent of lone-parent households are female-headed; women, not men, take all their given parental leave; single women seek parenthood more than single men. Women, not men, swallow and implant birth control.

Respecting the mandate, women’s opposition is multifarious. I learned this first-hand after a friend and I circulated a letter criticizing the mandate to several dozen women. By word of mouth, 41,000 women quickly signed. This included vegans who won’t swallow or implant hormones, even as they won’t eat them; medical professionals who have treated one too many young women with a serious illness traced to the pill; women queasy about projects in which government and pharmaceutical companies promote long-acting birth control to poor, minority women, sometimes offering material incentives to remain sterile for three to 10 years; women who have suffered in the “relationship market” built by the pill and abortion, where sex is expected but marriage is not on the horizon; women who have no moral qualms about contraception but are offended by the government’s heavy-handed treatment of religious charities; and women bone-tired of a government devoting legions of lawyers and millions of dollars to defending the mandate while women’s preferred and dire needs go largely unanswered.

Many of these women understand, as do I, the legitimate fears of those for whom the mandate is a referendum on women’s freedom. These include fears that there are no better ideas to address the feminization of poverty. Fears that women’s caretaking will never get its due. Fears that the economy and the job market will never rebound. But these are problems women could tackle together. In the meantime, it is unreasonable to declare the debate on women’s caretaking closed. Women differ, and all their reasonable arguments should be heard.

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Marie Rehbein
3 years ago
Well, isn't this disturbing. Not all opinions are informed opinions. Women, just like men, can misunderstand and issue or be swayed to elevate certain aspects of an issue, perhaps based on an unfortunate experience, beyond their actual significance. Simply, mandating access to contraception for those who want it, is not the same thing as disrespecting motherhood. What is disrespected in our society is people having children without having the resources -- both personal and financial -- to care for them properly. I appreciate that the Catholic Church does not advocate irresponsible parenthood, and I think those speaking on behalf of or to influence the Catholic Church should show the same respect to those they are critiquing.
Chris Miller
3 years ago
Ms Rehbein. I read your comment several times. I could not determine whether it was aimed at the first commenter, or the author of the text. If it is aimed at the first commenter, I think it is misplaced. If it is aimed at the author of the article. she is apparently a Catholic speaking from a position of expertise, so I am not sure whether this is aimed at her as a person "speaking on behalf of..." Pr Chris
Marie Rehbein
3 years ago
My comment was posted first. The placement usually makes clear which comment came first in that the earliest comments go to the bottom as new comments are added. The date and time are other clues as to which was first. Its being first means it could not possibly have been a response to the other comment. The author of the article is either speaking for the Church or trying to influence the thinking of others in charge of speaking for the Church. In any case, she is finding fault with those who would make contraception easily available and claiming many odd things such as that supporting easy access to contraception indicates that motherhood is not valued and that easy access to contraception means that there is no concern for any risks involved in using these products. She is saying all opinions coming from women are equal to each other because they come from women. She is not acknowledging that some opinions are better informed than others, that some opinions are projections, and that some opinions are simply irresponsible even though they are about an issue that affects women more than it does men. That she claims these are "reasonable arguments" does not make them reasonable. I agree with the other comment by Abigail Woods-Ferreira.
Anne Chapman
3 years ago
Thank you and Abigail Woods-Ferreira. You have done a good job pointing out some of the many flaws in the article. Ms. Alvare seems to be setting up a straw-man in her article - actually more than one straw man. Few people consider having contraception be available under their for-profit employer's health plan to have anything at all to do with valuing motherhood. Many who value motherhood the most are those who seek reliable, modern, safe methods of family planning that are less damaging to the daily rhythms of their married lovemaking than is the church's recommended method - unworkable for most couples, at least for those who value married lovemaking as one of the strongest unitive forces available for supporting their marriages. The enforced schedule, dictated by the unnatural practices of taking the basal temperature every day, and the even more unnatural practice of extracting one's own cervival mucus and examining it has nothing "natural" about it. It totally ignores the natural rhythms of lovemaking in most marriages. It also treats women's natural cycle of libido as of no importance - the female libido peaks during her most fertile period, but it is apparently only the man's libido that concern the church. With the exception of a few weeks in her entire reproductive life, women are supposed to deny their peak periods of sexual desires, their desire to express and receive love physically from their husbands. The church has reduced marriage to its most utiliarian function - procreation. It understands nothing of what makes a marriage a sacrament, which is found in the love relationship between the spouses, not in the biological function of procreation. Most couples choose to limit their families to a few children because they wish to be good parents. It isn't just about money - raising children in the west in the 21st century is one of the most challenging vocations there is - and this is as true for those with a lot of money as it is for those with too little. But it is those with too little money who are most harmed by those who are trying to impose their religious ideas on all, instead of respecting the religious freedom of all who don't work directly for the Roman Catholic church. Too many clerics and a handful of laity ignore the reality that it is the Roman Catholic church in the United States that seeks to restrict religious freedom, not those who would leave it up to each individual woman to choose the best method of birth control for herself, her marriage, and her family. The risks involved in taking the pill exist, but they are very small. There is a higher risk of mortality from pregnancy and childbirth on average than there is from taking the pill. Most doctors do a good job advising women - getting their medical and family histories, monitoring their health, etc. Women who smoke should not take the pill, women with certain family medical histories also should not take the pill, and many women in their late 30s and early 40s should not take it either. However, most women in that age group have completed their families, and their birth control method of choice is permanent sterilization for themselves or their husbands. It would be nice if America would get off its recent kick of article after article condemning modern methods of birth control. There are respected Catholic theologians and scholars out there who could provide a counter to this endless drumbeat against modern, God-given birth control methods. The vast majority of Catholic women not only take advantage of these methods, but give thanks to God for inspiring human beings to develop this gift to all humankind - at precisely the right time in the evolution of human history that is became needed. Who can doubt God's wisdom in this timing?
Frank Bergen
3 years ago
Ms. Chapman, you have just hit the ball right out of the park! I trust the editors will publish your comments in the print edition, where the readership is exponentially greater than it is for online comments. Brava! and every blessing this old priest -- Episcopal -- can send your way. You exemplify my Jesuit brother Francis' preference for fact over theory.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 11 months ago
All I would like to say is that as a mother and Catholic who attends daily mass and deeply values chastity and family life, but who also depends on insurance to cover the $144 a month cost of Orthotricylcen for legitimate health reasons, I hope America will make room on its pages for voices other than Ms Alvare's in this debate.
Frank Bergen
3 years ago
Skimming the comments on Professor Alvaré's article reassures me that I am not alone in finding it somewhat confusing. I'm happy to see that some readers question her authority to speak for them on matters about which they possess the very best kind of expertise: living experience. With my Jesuit brother Francis of Rome, I commend the priority of fact over theory.

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