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Definitely Good for the Economy. Good for Women?

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.



  1. Dana,
    Thanks for your post – the Nation article was interesting.

    While I agree that we should be scrutinizing the complexities of economic and social pressures, I think too many issues are conflated in this post. Primarily, what is good for the economy is certainly a motivator among market forces and many political decisions – it does not quite follow that this is what is going on here. It is far more complicated – it is demonstrated that US businesses lose about $1.1 trillion a year in lost productivity due to long term and chronic illness and yet there hasn’t been a massive push for universal healthcare and dealing with chronic health in this country – despite the fact that it would be quite good for business. In addition, women’s health has consistently been discriminated against in healthcare plans (including employer based plans) which was a major motivator in the current health care bill – and so despite the fact that access to birth control may make good business sense – and thus, Covert argues business should realize this – does not translate that this is what is motivating the current debate. There just isn’t significant evidence I can find to that effect.

    Even though you admit that many women feel freedom as a result of birth control and see birth control as essential – you still reduce it to a matter of choice and personal freedom/fulfillment – playing into the same “hand” that you seek to attack – that which makes this all about women’s personal choice and absolves society of its social responsibility for women and children as well as for social equality. Concerns of education and such are not simply personal choices and many women take birth control for pregnancy prevention for a host of critical medical reasons (not just for other medical conditions but as pregnancy prevention for those for whom pregnancy presents a significant health risk and therefore must be carefully attended to — ). Part of this, in my opinion, is being very careful to distinguish between contraception and abortion (debates about Ella aside).

  2. Thanks for the comment, Meghan. I guess I need to be more clear. I didn’t mean to suggest that “good business sense” is the whole motivation behind the whole debate. And clearly access to health care in general ought to be a good both for individuals and for families. My point is that economic and cultural forces are conspiring to make women feel as though they need reliable contraception in order to compete/survive economically. And, of course, in that scenario, mandating cost-free access to contraception is one solution. But so is a family wage, or paying all birth-related medical costs and a family allowance for food for the first 5 (or 18) years of a child’s life. My point is that when advocates for women, and especially for poor women, buy into the idea that this is the one essential solution to the problems women face in the workplace, this is as likely (more, so, really) to sell out women’s freedom as to enhance and support it, especially in the long term.

  3. And we agree on universal healthcare, a living wage, child allowances (as they have in Scandanavia – which have reduced child poverty to 4% in I think Norway -but i may have the country wrong) – I am in favor of all of that. However, I still disagree with your analysis of wedding contraception to this “selling out women’s freedom” in this way. The situation is simply much more complicated than that when looking at what full social equality for women would entail. The medical reality of women both for various health conditions as well as those conditions which require much greater attention to pregnancy prevention, timing and such is lost in the oversimplification of contraception with “individual choice to control fertility.” The argument you seem to be making is akin to Sidney Callahan’s on abortion – and this is where I get frustrated – because it appears to me like conflating abortion and contraception. I do not think that contraception can be viewed as necessarily backing women into the corner that Callahan rightly points out abortion does – where its all about her choice and now society has even more reason to fail to live up to its responsibility to support women and children.

    The “cost-free” is playing with words as well – we are talking about providing it without copays (and I’m all for discussions of other drugs that copayments shouldn’t be attached to – and there are some which don’t have copays depending on classification and condition). For employment based health insurance, we are still PAYING an employee portion of the healthcare premium – so it is not “cost free” coverage that we are talking about but no additional cost we are talking about.

  4. I didn’t mean to wed contraception to a selling out of women’s freedom. What I’m trying to do here is, bracketing questions about the morality of contraceptive acts and its availability, ask the question of whether it is really good for women. And, of course, so much rhetoric seems to insist that availability of contraception without additional co-pays is an absolute minimum of what is required to allow women to compete equally in the workforce. But, actually, there are other forms of family support and workplace laws (12 months paid maternity leave?, laws against firing expectant or new mothers?) that would actually do that as well, but would cost employers much more. I am just trying to raise the question of why this is seen as the one, necessary solution, the new symbol of what it means to be pro-woman or not, when it seems that there are some very different ways to address these things. I get very suspicious when what is obviously good for big business is also the symbol of an oppressed group’s acquisition of freedom. I’m not even saying that that’s not the case, but can’t we, and shouldn’t we, question it?

  5. Dana,

    You raise good questions in this post, but there’s one premise I’m not sure I can buy, namely that “There is no question that contraception is good for the economy.”

    It seems as though contraception can be beneficial for individual businesses (not paying for maternity leaves, not paying for dependents on insurance), but it does not follow that it is good for the economy.

    Essential for a long-term healthy economy is population replacement. I’ve read that 2.1 children per woman is required for this replacement. In the U.S., we have managed to succeed in replacing our population largely due to the help of immigration and minorities (approx. 3 children per woman, compared to approx 1 child per woman among the white population, averaging two 2). But haven’t we seen European economies struggling to maintain their stability in the midst of a substantial population decline? Moreover, the recent evaluations of China’s one-child policy have been instructive in this matter.

    Businessweek writes: “Failure to scrap the law risks accelerating a demographic change that the Beijing-based Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy estimates could eventually cut China’s growth in half. With China accounting for about 30 percent of global expansion, the restraint would affect companies such as automaker General Motors Co. and Yum! Brands Inc., operator of KFC restaurants.”

    In 2011, The Economist noted: “But new census figures bolster claims made in the past few years that China is suffering from a demographic problem of a different sort: too low a birth rate. The latest numbers, released on April 28th and based on the nationwide census conducted last year, show a total population for mainland China of 1.34 billion. They also reveal a steep decline in the average annual population growth rate, down to 0.57% in 2000-10, half the rate of 1.07% in the previous decade. The data imply that the total fertility rate, which is the number of children a woman of child-bearing age can expect to have, on average, during her lifetime, may now be just 1.4, far below the “replacement rate” of 2.1, which eventually leads to the population stabilising.”

    These articles name a few of the the economic problems created by this low birth rate, such as the greater need for profit by exports and the burden of caring for the disproportionate elderly population, not to mention the inability to adequately fund retirement pensions.

    So, undoubtedly there are mathematical formulas we can run to indicate that contraception benefits individual businesses in the short-term, I’m not sure we can apply those numbers to “the economy” as a whole, if we associate contraception with a non-replacement birthrate (which I think we definitely can). If we could be confident that every woman using contraception would have at least two kids, there would be no reason to worry. But that does not seem to be the case. And if greater availability to contraception leads to a birthrate lower than 2.1, the U.S. will soon face similar problems to China and Europe in regard to not being able to replace the workforce, not being able to care for the elderly, not being able to fund retirements, having to rely more on profit by exports, etc. That sounds like a recipe for a bad economy, despite short-term gain for businesses.

  6. Maria, thanks for your comment. Your point is well taken. I came to regret accepting that premise not long after I published this, though I was thinking a bit more directly of the Compendium’s insistence that economic good and moral good are not separable (around ##330-335). I think I’m glad I did so for the sake of getting a conversation going, but I wouldn’t defend the premise this way again. I think you have to define economy and good quite narrowly to make that work. Of course, one of the great problems in this debate is how differently everyone sees what is at stake. Anyway, thanks for adding to the things I’ve learned by posting this!

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