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What is the Real Women’s Rights Problem?

Theresa Lynn in the kitchen

Each side in the debate over the mandate for insurance for reproductive services grapples with a real problem, but the mandate is only a symbolic solution to the underlying women’s rights issue. The HHS mandate requires businesses, including many religious institutions, to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and some abortifacients. Religious institutions that are morally opposed but not exempt deeply oppose the mandate. The reality is that the mandate creates a free exercise problem without solving a genuine women’s rights issue.

Let me say it up front: I don’t support the HHS mandate, and I’m firmly on the side of the Catholic bishops and other religious leaders. I don’t personally have a moral problem with birth control, but I do with abortifacients. As a constitutional law attorney, I am persuaded the HHS mandate violates the Free Exercise clause. As a would-be ethical human being, I don’t believe in pushing anyone onto ethically shaky ground: I don’t serve pork to my Muslim and Jewish friends or alcohol to my teetotal friends. In the same way that investment portfolios can avoid stock in blood diamonds or prefer environmentally-friendly companies, and for the same reasons that conscientious objectors can avoid military service, religious institutions shouldn’t have to subsidize birth control or abortifacients. For those who are the victims of the HHS mandate, this is a Free Exercise, moral, and religious issue.

But let’s consider why there is so much passion over a mostly symbolic mandate, since birth control is just not that hard to get in America. I believe the reason for the passion is this. Children do sabotage a woman’s career success, at least to some extent. Even in 2012, child-bearing can be a fairly sure route to professional under-achievement. That is a reality that the feminists get, and why they insist on birth control as an equalizer.

Take my field, which happens to be law, because that's where I read the white papers and blogs. Some younger women have babies and practice law and immediately find themselves in a quagmire of impossible choices. Can a litigator go home at 5:00 o’clock? Not without making somebody mad whom she doesn’t want to annoy. If she does, can she be as successful as her peers? Hardly. The literature shows that most women attorneys who choose a reduced-time schedule to have more time with their children find themselves stuck in less intellectually satisfying jobs, and even if they are lucky enough to make partner, have less real voice and power.

In most of the demanding professions, women who take time out of the work force face a career delay they can probably never make up. The people with the best chance at both career success and family success are men who have wives staying home to take care of the kids and a lot of other life details.

With all the progress women have made, it’s disturbing that child-rearing is still that detrimental to a career. The human lifespan is long enough now that there should be time to spend ten years or twenty raising a family and still have a full professional career. Women who move along the track more slowly, spending time on both family and paid career, should be able to get there in the end. Women who take time out to raise a family should be able to bring the skills gained from their activities during those years back into the work force. But I have talked to professional women who were told, and sometimes explicitly, that they are presumptuous to think that leadership, management, organizational, and other skills from their past work or volunteer experience should translate meaningfully to this second career (whatever it is). Understand, I’m not advocating for a false equality. If someone walks instead of runs, or steps off the path, she won’t cover the distance. Anyone who puts more time and energy into the career will rightfully move along faster. The question is whether she has the opportunity to get back in the race; whether she will be given the chance to run again.

I think this is the underlying truth that liberal women recognize, and they have my sympathy on this one. Babies can derail your career. Therefore, they reason, birth control and abortion are women’s rights issues—an answer to the baby problem—at least a way to control timing and number. They’ve correctly identified a major problem. But I think their proposed solutions are dead on arrival.

First, significantly limiting childbirth is cultural suicide. An anti-baby mindset will wipe out our civilization in just one generation. We see that in the birth-dearth countries. We also see significant negative social consequences in countries like China that searched out and destroyed a large proportion of their young women with sex-selective abortions.

Second, human beings long for the fundamentals. Men marry their live-in girlfriends all the time, despite no obvious logical reason for making that more serious commitment. Women are the bearers and nurturers of life and instinctively realize that if they reject that, they will be less themselves. (This is not to say women must physically give birth; I know many women who are mothers in a spiritual but not physical sense.) Frankly, turning into a pale imitation of a man (fond though I am of men) is not a desirable solution. C.S. Lewis wrote a powerful essay called “Men Without Chests,” warning of a society where intellect and appetite would rule without moral and ethical control. A society of women without wombs is just as barren and destructive.

The younger generation may understand this intuitively, which is why more young people are pro-life than previous demographic groups (, and some young women are heard to say frankly that if they have to choose between family and success, the price of success is too high. If women have to choose between giving life and taking success, they often choose life.

Both because it advocates a path that is not wise to follow, and because it only affects a tiny minority of women, the HHS mandate is essentially irrelevant to solving the problem. It is a symbolic gesture. Could we do better in addressing the real problems? Could we have both life and success? I believe so, and here’s why.

The problem I’ve described with career-shifting is not purely a women’s problem. It is a cultural problem posed in the new millennium, because the demographics of the modern world involve constant job-changing and career-shifting. Military retirees, for instance, have a hard time finding second jobs where the skills from the first job are fairly respected. Others who change careers have the same issues. Yet trend for career fluidity is expected to increase and not decline. That is the new reality.

Some companies have learned to value career diversity instead of fighting against it. The solution to the problem for women in the workplace is similar to the problem of shifting careers for anyone.  Raising and educating children and managing a household, when done well, is a hard job that teaches valuable skills like any other career.

Businesses can honor skills and experiences derived in different life and job settings—getting past the idea that there is only one track for developing a skill set and that a person’s professional worth is measured by time on or off that particular track. Not only are they valuable in themselves, previous job and life experiences let second-career workers absorb and implement skills from the new career much faster.

If companies treat the retired lieutenant-colonel, the previously part-time attorney, and the mom re-entering the work force as if they are exactly on a level with 25-year-olds straight out of graduate school, re-entering and flexible time employees will fail. Career-shifting employees don’t have the chronological time to succeed on the traditional track, nor are they likely to fit the development model of someone much younger. Employers could (and some do) weigh and value the skills of a prior career, giving responsibilities sooner, providing training for areas of deficit, and expecting previous career skills to enrich the new job setting. The man who built roads in Nicaragua, the woman who ran the household and the entire PTA, and the woman who was a manager in a different profession all bring value from former careers. By taking advantage of this diversity, companies can get and retain people with broad understanding and competitive talents. Businesses that are nimble and creative with their human capital are more likely to succeed in the new economy.

Unlimited access to birth control someone else pays for isn’t really the issue, and the HHS mandate should be struck down on Free Exercise grounds. But while we’re at it, let’s give some thought to solving the women’s rights problem--and incidentally not waste great resources and talents. That’s a good agenda for either side.

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