I’m really grateful that I came across Bryce Covert’s article “Why Employers Should Want Their Workers Using Contraception.” It really puts out there, quite clearly and quite succinctly, the argument that women’s access to contraception adds reliable workers to the workforce, and this is good for business and good for the economy as a whole. To quote Covert,
When women are freed up from unwanted pregnancy and able to control the pace of childbirth, they are that much more able and likely to hit the workforce. Which is good news for employers and for the economy.
There’s no question that contraception places more women in the workforce, and keeps them there more reliably. There’s no question that this is good for their employers, good for business, and good for the economy overall. But I’m not sure that it is good for women.
Now, let me say clearly: many women experience contraception as a freedom. They feel that it frees them to continue their education, their job, their pursuit of their career and achievement dreams in a way that they feel would not be possible without access to contraception. And that feels like a freedom to pursue one’s own personal goals and dreams. But isn’t it a little suspicious when the freedoms that they insist on protecting and promoting are also the ones that help us contribute to the economy?
Although I have known plenty of women who think that contraception is essential to their freedom, I have also known those who felt incredibly limited by it. The easy availability of contraception means that every pregnancy must be not only wanted but planned. There were untold social pressures on these women (and, to some extend, their husbands, but who bears the brunt of these pressures, even in our liberated world?) not to conceive in graduate school, or in the first few years of marriage, or in a time of crisis in the extended family, or…. There is no question that the use of contraception is a game-changer. But once the possibility is there for women to control their fertility, the expectation develops that they will do so, not only in line not only with their own interests and agendas but also with those of others (including their employers).
Ms. Covert ends her article with the (surely rhetorical) question: “Supposedly moral objections to giving women control over their reproduction aside, contraception makes acute business sense. Who would want to opt out of that?” What reasonable employer could possibly not want employees increasingly available for company business?
Now, there are of course a mix of conservative forces weighing in on this issue, all with their particular interests and agendas. But the Catholic Church has a long tradition of thinking about the role of work within human life, and has insisted that work is for the person, rather than the person being for work. Or, to put it in broader terms, the economy should always be at the service of the person, and the communities of persons (including, most basically, the family) that make up our common life. The personal moral issues related to contraception aside (not easily done!), to the extent that availability of contraception risks contributing to a reversal of this ordering (and therefore putting the person at the service of the economy), contraception is morally objectionable on a social level.
I am a theologian, not a sociologist, but I wonder if we can quantify whether contraception has been good for women in terms of socio-economic advancement. There is no question that it is good for the economy. As of 2010, there were more women living in poverty in the US than ever before. Why is that? Certainly, some would say that contraception is a potential solution to this sort of poverty. But it’s also possible that contraception (and abortion), and the sort of pressure it puts on women (alone) to choose pregnancies at wise and fitting times or to face them on their own, is a contributing factor to the increasing numbers of women and children that we see in poverty.
I remain grateful that the US Bishops continue to resist the HHS mandate on contraceptives and abortifacients. I think it’s crucial that those who advocate for workers, women, and the poor–even if they don’t share Catholic objections to the use of contraceptives and abortifacients–ask some serious questions about who stands to benefit and who stands to lose if access to these things becomes the mandated law of the land. It may seem like requiring access to this option can’t hurt, but increased expectations that women will use these options to their employers’ benefit is sure to follow.