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.