Saturday, February 18, 2012

Contraception, Catholicism, and feminism

One of the central tenets of the Catholic faith (and indeed, of pretty much every major religion) is the primacy of human dignity: a deep and abiding respect for the full humanity and intrinsic value of every person on this Earth.  That reverence for human dignity, which truly is at the center of Church doctrine, is one of my guiding principles.  It is one of the main things my faith has taught me.

And when I say a reverence for human dignity, I mean a reverence for the full humanity of every person.  Applied to women, this means a respect for the dignity of their uteruses.  It also means a respect for the dignity of their minds, their mouths, their hands, and their feet.  It means respecting women as fully human on every level, and as such both valuing them and engaging with them.

There are circumstances in which the Catholic Church does a very good job of furthering human dignity.  In serving the poor, the Church does a pretty good job of being respectful of those that they are helping, of treating them as individuals with value.  Even a glance at the recent history of the Church's role in Central America shows the Church's capacity for ministry that affirms human dignity.

But when it comes to women, the Church struggles mightily.  Women's minds are not valued--women theologians (and their work) are routinely overlooked.  Women's work--whether as laity or as sisters--is often taken for granted.  After all, for centuries women religious (nuns) far outnumbered the male clergy (priests and monks)... largely because the Church was the only option for women who wanted social roles outside the home (or, if you like, because of the inherent spirituality of women).  The lack of value for the full, human dignity of women is both broadly and deeply ingrained in the institutional Church.

But nowhere is this lack of appreciation for the dignity of women more apparent than where it comes to our bodies.  The recent controversy over birth control is uncomfortably illuminating.

As a student of economic history (quite literally this semester), it is pretty much impossible for me to imagine a society in which women are truly equal members without widespread access to reliable birth control.  Seriously.  Think about it.

If women did not have access to reliable birth control, we would be having a lot more children than we do.  Maybe not everyone, but in general.  Remember, we had pretty much two generations born between the advent of modern medicine and the advent of reliable birth control.  In the first of those generations, economic depression and war kept the fertility rate down.  The second of those generations was called the Baby Boom.

But not only would women be having a lot more children without birth control, we'd have a lot less control about when we had them.  Today, most professional women plan their childbearing to fit in with their careers, more or less.  (And yes, I recognize that I'm talking mostly about women in the more privileged half of society, both now and in the past.  Poor women worked to support their families before birth control and continue to do so after.  The ways in which social movements leave out the disadvantaged are myriad and a topic for another time.)  Women who use it recognize that birth control gives them that power over their careers.

The thing is, though, that the widespread availability of birth control benefits nearly every woman in her career today, regardless of her level of sexual activity.  How?  Through employers' expectations.  Think of it as something akin to herd immunity, like we see with vaccinations.  Employers don't expect most of their high-level female employees to have more than two or three kids.  They worry some about when women will decide to have kids--evidenced by the pay gap that now emerges when men and women are in their 30's--but they worry about it a lot less than they used to, because it's a much rarer occurrence in the life of each professional woman.  And they don't worry about it until well-past the time when most women are sexually active (this is evidenced by the comparative lack of gender pay gap for men and women in their 20's).

It's hard to understate how important widespread access to birth control is for women's professional mobility.  Before the feminist movement (and birth control... it's not an accident that they came together), it was extremely rare for women to move beyond secretarial roles, especially if they married.  Rather than dismissing this as blatant sexism (though it was that, too), consider those employers' reasoning.  As employers saw it, women had to be replaceable, because they could get pregnant and leave at any time.  (I imagine this dynamic was also a strong factor behind the norm that women who could afford to were expected to stop working when they married.)  This was the conventional wisdom of the world before birth control.

Without widespread access to contraceptives, it's hard to imagine that this dynamic could have changed as much as it has.  Not that you wouldn't have gotten the occasional woman who sacrificed everything else for a brilliant career (such women existed before birth control), but that professionally successful women would not be commonplace in any sense.  Without the professional opportunities they have gained, women would not have the economic power that they do today.  Without that economic power, it would be incredibly difficult for us to have much political voice.  Nor would our education be as valued.  All of these things are intimately connected.

In a society without access to contraceptives, I have a very difficult time imagining how we could maintain any real equality between the sexes.  Our current level of equity (imperfect, but a far sight better than anything in the last 2,000 years) might last for a generation, maybe two, while we remembered that it was possible.  But sooner or later women's professional advancement would be limited, as employers sought to protect themselves from the costs of women having more children (likely at less opportune moments).  The biggest Justice Department/Office of Civil Rights in the world could not stand up against that kind of economic pressure for more than a couple of decades.  The economic power of women would crumble, and political power would follow.  It's hard to say exactly where we would end up, but it's hard to imagine any scenario in which women would not have fewer opportunities than they do today.

The equality of our society is at stake here, nothing less.

Out of deference to human dignity, I feel I must support the right to contraceptive access, the right for women to choose when to have children if they so desire.  Because contraception is not abortion, not even close.  (Abortion is a topic for another day.)  Nor have I heard any scriptural arguments against birth control.  Women have been attempting contraception since before Moses... the only difference is that for the last forty years it's been effective.

I believe in contraceptive access out of respect for the minds and mouths of women, in honor of their contributions to the sciences, the arts, the law, and almost every area of human endeavor in the last half-century.  Out of awe at the ways women have grasped the opportunities finally opened to them, long-denied.  Out of respect for the way women have come forward serve their society and their country, as well as their families.  Because I have seen their passion and fire and brilliance and know that the world is a better place with that passion unleashed.  Because supporting their right to choose when to have children is a great affirmation of human dignity--an affirmation that women are fully human in every way, that their contributions outside the home are valuable, that they are worthy of respect rather than condescension.

Affirming the dignity and value of women by supporting contraceptive access is the best way I know to live my Catholic faith.

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