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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Real War Against Women


Jennifer Roback Morse


This paper was originally delivered at the first Capitol Hill Symposium, sponsored by The Family in America, on December 7, 2012.

In the last election cycle, we were treated to the spectacle of one political party accusing the other of waging a war against women. I agree that there is a war against women, but not the one we heard the politicians talking about. The war I am talking about has a very different solution than zero-priced contraceptives.
I believe the real war is a war against women’s fertility.

In this paper I will give evidence for my claim that some people, including many with political and social power, regard women’s fertility as a problem to be solved, and many public policies reflect their view. I will argue that women should not accept the ideological formulation that treats their bodies and their fertility as social problems; the goods that people claim to be serving by these policies can be achieved in other ways. Finally, I suggest a better way forward, more humane for women and children, as well as for men, and more sustainable for society as a whole. We should regard women’s fertility not as a problem to be solved, but rather a gift from God, to be cherished, protected and celebrated.

Women’s Fertility is Considered a Problem

Let us state at the outset that the default position in a free society ought to be that a couple’s fertility decisions should be none of anyone else’s business. After all, the vast majority of parents shoulder the vast majority of financial responsibilities for the vast majority of babies. If the parents believe the babies are worth the costs, neither the state nor society has any right to contradict them or to try to direct their choices one way or the other.

This might seem like a straightforward, unexceptional claim. In spite of that seeming simplicity, however, there are two types of problems that controlling women’s fertility is supposed to solve. One we might call the public policy externalities. The other has to do with claims about gender equity, fairness, and women’s role in public life.

First, the alleged public policy issues.1 Some argue that there are fiscal or social costs of child-bearing that are not borne by the parents. For instance, a private decision to have a baby could have the public consequence of creating a child who will be dependent on government assistance. One more baby born could mean increased tax expenditures through education, welfare costs, and social infrastructure. But this crass financial assumption that additional babies mean additional public burdens is simply not plausible for the vast majority of births. After all, most babies eventually grow up, earn a living, contribute to society, and pay taxes.

So this particular externality applies only to the limited number of babies who are likely to become net tax consumers over the course of their entire lifetimes. For all practical purposes, this argument is a claim that the government has an interest in the procreation decisions of the poor. It assumes further that the proper policy of the government is to limit the births of the poor, rather than to try to help them become selfsupporting, tax-paying citizens.

Note the circularity. The government decides to provide tax funds to assist the children of the poor, and then uses its own decision as a rationale for taking an interest in private reproductive behavior. The government’s own policy becomes an entrée into regulating the actions of the least well-off citizens.

Some claim that concern for the environment is another externality that generates a public interest in private decisions about family size.

Every new human being consumes resources and generates pollution. Some environmentalists argue that this “carbon footprint” amounts to a cost that each person imposes on the environment and on the rest of the world. Hence, no decision to bear a child is truly a private decision. This is an argument for reducing family size, regardless of the wealth of the family or the wishes of the parents. If anything, the rich should be especially discouraged from reproducing, since their children are likely to be bigger consumers, hence bigger polluters.

Finally, the government might adopt a population policy for explicitly eugenic reasons, claiming for itself the responsibility to monitor the health of the gene pool. If it takes up this responsibility, the government really ought to encourage people with desirable genes to reproduce, while encouraging contraception for those with genes deemed to be undesirable. Most definitions of “desirable” genes include some combination of intelligence, high income-earning capacity, and social productivity. In other words, the genes labeled “desirable” are the genes of the relatively well-off, those most likely to have the heaviest “carbon footprint.”  This eugenic motive, therefore, contradicts the environmental motive.

It should be obvious that these possible motives are some combination of perverse, implausible, or repulsive. Nonetheless, they are sometimes presented as reasons that the government should take an interest in private reproductive decisions, and as justifications for taxpayer-funded policies promoting fertility control.
Besides these public policy considerations, issues of gender equity are sometimes put forth as problems that can be solved by controlling women’s fertility. The issue of marriage and children are intimately related to the question of women’s work and wages. Economists have known for some time that the most significant source of the gender wage gap is marriage and children, not labor market discrimination per se. Never-married women earn roughly the same as never-married men.2Men earn more when they get married, particularly when they become fathers.3 They tend to become more focused on their labor force performance with the arrival of children. For women, however, marriage and children are associated with declines in earnings. Women tend to reduce their commitment to the labor force and focus on meeting their children’s needs in a personal way.

Many Americans of all parties assume that closing the gender earnings gap is an unambiguous good. But equal incomes require identical behavior. In their desire to be equal with their male peers, women have forced their work lives into the mold created for male career paths. Traditional male career trajectories demand the most intense investment early in life, which happens to be the time that women’s bodies are most suited for pregnancy. By the time women have accomplished enough in their careers to feel financially prepared for motherhood, their peak fertility is behind them.

Until now, we highly educated women have defined our goal as being equal participants in a labor market designed for people who do not give birth. We are allowed to participate, as long as we chemically suppress our fertility during our peak child-bearing years. When our children are the smallest and most vulnerable, we agree to place them in commercial care—that is, if we are lucky enough to have any children. If we are unable to conceive when we are finally ready professionally and financially, we agree to submit our bodies to the trauma of Artificial Reproductive Technology.

In other words, we ourselves have come to consider our own fertility a problem to be solved, rather than something to embrace whole-heartedly. A combination of private behavior and public policies have steered us in this direction.

Of course, not all women want to have children. What is objectionable is the idea that the entire higher education system and labor market should be geared toward the interests of women who do not mind postponing the birth of their first child until they are 35. We have adapted our bodies to the education system and the labor market. A genuinely pro-woman policy would insist that the university and the market adapt to us and our bodies.

There is much I could say on this point that many in public life, throughout the Leadership Classes, consider women’s fertility a problem to be solved. Many in government, academia, and media seem to share this view. Let me just offer a few examples.

Professor James Trussell is a well-known expert on contraception and a distinguished professor at Princeton. A few years ago, he announced at a major conference that the pill does not work.4 A long-time advocate of widespread contraception, an expert on the data, revealed that the pill does not work as advertized. “The Pill,” said Trussel, “is an outdated method because it does not work well enough. It is very difficult for ordinary women to take a pill every single day….”  He is also quoted as saying that “It is ‘unrealistic’ to expect women to take the emergency contraceptive every time they have unprotected sex.”

What are we to make of this expert report that oral contraception does not work as advertized?  The most straightforward scientific view of the matter would be to simply accept it as a fact. Contraceptive technology can reduce the probability of any particular act of intercourse resulting in a pregnancy. It does not, however, reduce the probability all the way to zero.

A sensible response to this fact would be to simply say so, and urge people to plan their sex lives appropriately. Pick your sex partners with the idea that you might become parents together. If parenthood with that particular person would be a disaster, pick another partner or abstain from sex.

But that is not what the Princeton professor concluded. His solution was IUDs or long-lasting hormonal contraceptives such as implants. These intrinsically intrusive measures are especially important for younger women, who are the least likely to take their pills reliably. His solution, in other words, is more chemical warfare against women’s fertility.

Here is another example, this time from an article about the differential failure rates of contraception for cohabiting women. Contraception failure rates vary tremendously by demographic group, a fact few experts on the subject discuss publicly.5

In any case, here are two authorities from the Guttmacher Institute. The Guttmacher Institute was originally the research arm of Planned Parenthood, and is now an independent organization, devoted to advancing “sexual and reproductive health and rights”:

Cohabiting women are particularly vulnerable to unintended pregnancy. These women use contraceptives at rates similar to those of married women, but their levels of sexual activity are typically higher; moreover, because they are younger, on average, than married women, their level of fecundity may be higher. Although many cohabiting women may indicate that they do not intend to become pregnant, they may in fact be deferring to their partners’ desires to avoid pregnancy, and as a result these women’s efforts to avoid childbearing may not always be great.6

These cohabiting women are lukewarm about using contraception. They are having babies because they want to, sometimes against the wishes of their sex partners. And what is the experts’ solution to this problem?  They write, “The high rates of unintended birth and abortion among cohabiting women suggest that both they and their partners would benefit from improved social and medical services related to pregnancy planning.”7

In other words, more contraception. It does not seem to enter the minds of the professionals that maybe women need more support from their sex partners, and from society. Maybe society would benefit, and the men themselves would benefit from encouragement and social structures that allow them to become responsible fathers. Maybe men and women alike need a cultural norm that marriage is a good thing, an attainable thing, and that marriage is the normal, socially expected and socially sanctioned context for both sexual activity and child-bearing.  But no. They really need more contraception and better education on how to use it.

Finally, consider whether women have adapted to university life, or whether university life has adapted to them. I claim that the typical university is no more welcoming of women today than it was in 1955, in spite of the fact that women now outnumber men at most universities, that women are graduating in greater numbers, and that women are by and large very serious and successful students.

Women are welcomed at the university and do well there as long as they act like men. We are not welcomed as fertile beings, who might actually give birth to a child. Back in the 1950s, a pregnant university student was expected to leave the university, either to get married, or to have the baby quietly and put it up for adoption. Today, pregnant women are expected to kill their babies.

If you doubt me, consider this. On the vast majority of college campuses, you would search in vain for a single restroom anywhere on campus that provides a diaper-changing table. The message is unmistakable: we have no room here for mothers and their babies. The university is no more welcoming today of women, as women, than it was 50 years ago.

Public Policies that Treat Women’s Fertility as a Problem

The most obvious current example of a public policy treating women’s fertility as a problem is the mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services for implementing the Affordable Care Act. Treating pregnancy prevention as “preventive care,” and therefore available without a co-pay, amounts to treating pregnancy as a disease or illness, rather than as the normal functioning of a healthy woman’s body.

The idea that this policy has anything to do with “choice” is completely belied by the fact that non-compliance is punishable by punitive fines. For instance, it has been estimated that Hobby Lobby, a private corporation held by a religious family, will be liable for fines of over $1 million dollars per day. Likewise, the Catholic Church in America runs the largest non-governmental social services network in the world. Yet their operations will be either shut down or taken over by the government, unless they forgo their “right to choose” what kind of insurance coverage to provide their employees.

A second public policy example is, of course, Medicaid, which has become the largest federal supplier of contraception. In 2006, for example, Medicaid was responsible for more than 70% of public birthcontrol expenditures, or $1.3 billion.8 Through Medicaid rules, the federal government has been implicitly imposing an anti-natal, anti-fertility morality of its own. Medicaid rules and policies actively promote fertility control, and contraception is a mandatory part of state Medicaid programs and is reimbursed at the most highly favored rate. Contraception must be made available to minors over the age of puberty, without the consent of their parents. Under Medicaid rules, contraception must be free to welfare recipients, without even a nominal co-pay. And state governments have an incentive to actively promote family-planning services, especially to minors, since their outreach, advertising, and sex-education expenses are reimbursed at the same most favorable rate of 90%.9  My policy proposal is that the federal government should not promote the use of contraception. Contraception is available without legal restriction to anyone.10 It is none of the government’s business what people choose to do or not to do with it. Nor is it the government’s business to promote or suggest or steer people’s decision-making.

I do not accept the claim that the federal government has an interest in controlling the fertility of the poor, because there are too many poor people. This claim is an implicit admission that the welfare state requires government interference in the lives of the poor. It is an admission of the moral and fiscal bankruptcy of the welfare state. Change the welfare policies to make them more sustainable and compassionate, but stop viewing the children of the poor as a problem for policymakers to solve, by preventing their existence.

Ceasing to promote contraception would mean, at the very least, undoing the Medicaid rules I have mentioned, and of course, undoing the HHS Mandate.
Finally, government schools should not be teaching children about sex or contraception. Why?  Because, again, it is none of the government’s business. It is the business of families—of parents, mothers, fathers, aunties and uncles, grandmas and grandpas—to teach children about human sexuality and its place in our lives.
If you think that eliminating sex education in public schools would lead to more out-of-wedlock childbearing and teen pregnancy, I would ask you to consider the fact that we already have a 70% out-of-wedlock childbearing rate among the poor, and one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrial world. It is time to admit that the current publicsector regime has failed. Let the family do its job.

An Unnecessary Regime

In addition to the reasons above, women should not accept the view that their fertility is a social problem because the goods that we are alleged to receive from the current regime are goods we could obtain without that regime. In particular, the opponents of fertility claim credit for women’s increased academic achievements and increased participation in the labor force.

In the opening statement of a 2006 paper on the gender college gap, Harvard Economics Professor Claudia Goldin wrote, “Although the fact is not widely known, the ratio of male to female undergraduates in the United States was about at parity from 1900 through 1930.” Goldin goes on to note that male enrollments began to increase during the 1930s and accelerated in the 1940s as returning servicemen entered college on the GI Bill. The highpoint of gender imbalance in college enrollment occurred in 1947, “[b]ut starting then, . . . female college enrollments have increased relative to male enrollments,” until now women undergraduates outnumber men on most campuses and in most disciplines.

Note Goldin’s starting date for the shift: 1947, a full 15 years before the publication of The Feminine Mystique, well before the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold decision,11 and nearly two decades before the founding of the National Organization for Women.12

Likewise, the trend toward the increased labor force participation of married women began well before the feminist movement and the widespread social acceptance of fertility control. Women’s labor force participation began to increase around the turn of the century, and accelerated in the 1940s. Contrary to popular myth, not all the “Rosie the Riveters” were sent home the day after the armistice. A large percentage of women workers continued to work after the war. In fact, the acceleration in married women’s labor force participation was so strong in the 1940s that economic historians dispute not so much the timing of this shift, but its cause.

Neither feminist ideology nor contraception can be the primary cause of these developments. The timing simply does not work.13 Women had access to higher education and increased labor force participation, even without the gender and contraceptive ideologies of the past halfcentury. We could yet have labor force participation and higher education, without waging war against our own bodies.

The Judeo-Christian Tradition

Can anyone today seriously claim that the state is acting as a purely neutral policeman, adjudicating among competing truth claims?  That might have once been true, but it has become increasingly clear that the modern, overbearing state has absolutely no intention of allowing competing worldviews the space they need to function. Those in power within the state have demonstrated that they intend to use the full authority and might of the state to impose their views on the whole of society, to create cultural hegemony, and to wipe out all remaining pockets of resistance.  Given that this is the case, trying to make “public arguments” in the Rawlsian sense no longer works. Fortunately, the Judeo-Christian tradition proposes an alternative vision of life, and of what is truly valuable and worth pursuing. Christianity, combined with free-market thinking, offers a different solution to economic inequality between men and women. The modern version of secular feminism, which was really Marxist-inspired in many respects, insisted on identical incomes for men and women, at every point in their lives. This misguided concept of justice has shaped 40 years of public and corporate policy, disregarding the fact that traditional male career trajectories demand the most intense investment early in life.

Women would be better off if they accepted the reality that their fertility peaks during their twenties. Go to college for a liberal, not a vocational, education. Get married. Have kids. Let your husband support you. Maybe go back to school for an advanced degree. Go to work. Help support the kids’ college education, and your joint retirement. And, since women live longer than men, we could work longer and let our husbands relax a bit.

Of course, this vision of the workplace also involves an alternative vision of marriage and family. Marriage is a life-long institution for mutual cooperation and support, rather than the unenforceable noncontract it has become. I need not say that cooperation between spouses would be far better for children. Nor need I say that this is the exact opposite of the secular feminist vision, which replaced marital stability with employment stability.

Christianity and Judaism also offer a different vision of the differences between men and women. Many modern secularists seem to resent sex differences, viewing them as evidence of some cosmic injustice. But the Judeo-Christian vision embraces these differences as part of the divine plan for teaching love, and drawing us out of our natural selfcenteredness. Marriage is inherently a gender-based institution, because it helps men and women to bridge the natural differences between them. Marriage is the school and household of love. Within the household, men and women learn to help each other, to cooperate with each other, and to understand each other.14

This is very different from the modern secular image of husbands and wives at each others’ throats, in competition for dominance and power inside their own homes. The modern secularists insist that love, sex, and reproduction be separated from each other, for the sake of making men and women equal. But this view places men and women at odds with each other. Men exploit women for sex, seeing them as objects that give pleasure. Women exploit men for reproduction, treating them as a combination of wallet and sperm bank.

The Judeo-Christian vision insists that marriage is the proper context for both sexual activity and for child-rearing. The man’s sexual desire for woman turns him toward love for her. Christianity demands that he love his wife “as Christ loves the Church,” which is to say, a completely selfemptying, self-giving love.15 The husband’s love for his wife builds upon and reinforces his love for the children she bears. The woman’s desire for children turns her heart toward the man who will be the father of her children. Love, sex, and child-bearing are integrated under the umbrella of marriage.

The Judeo-Christian vision of sexuality also contrasts with modern secularism in a fundamental way. The modern vision is that sex has no meaning, apart from the meaning that an individual might happen to assign to it. In both the Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition from which it springs, every sexual act has literally cosmic significance, whether the individuals recognize it or not.

Which vision appeals to you?  The vision of intrinsic meaning, which implies and imposes some responsibility upon you?  Or the vision of intrinsic meaninglessness, which frees us from responsibility, but which also offers us literally nothing? 

Women’s fertility in general, and our children in particular, we can regard as gifts from God, to be cherished, protected, and celebrated. Up until now, we women have accepted it as our duty to adapt our bodies to the university and the labor force. I say, it is time that we insist that the university and the labor market adapt to us and our bodies.  No more war on women’s fertility.

Dr. Morse is the Founder and President of The Ruth Institute.

1 . This discussion relies on my article, “The Incoherence of Federal Sex Policy: Title X, Medicaid, and the Eisenstadt Decision,” The Family in America 24, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 375-385.

2 . This observation has been in the literature for decades. One recent recap of the evidence is in Warren Farrell, Why Men Earn More (New York: AMACOM, 2005).

3 . Stephen Nock, Marriage in Men’s Lives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

4 . Rebecca Smith, “‘Contraceptive Pill is outdated and does not work well,’ expert warns,” The Telegraph, June 25, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2193112/ContraceptivePill-is-outdated-and-does-not-work-well-expert-warns.html?cid=2193112.

5 . Please note that all of these studies of contraceptive failure rates were published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. For instance, “Women who are young, black, single or childless and those who engage in risky sex are more likely than others to have condoms break, while women with children have heightened odds of experience with slippage,” according to “Likelihood That a Condom Will Break or Slip Off Is at Least Partly Related to User’s Characteristics,” Family Planning Perspectives 32, no. 1 (2000), accessed December 1, 2012, http://www.guttmacher.org/ pubs/journals/3205200.html. For a breakdown of contraceptive failure rates by age, marital status, and income, see Table 2 of “Contraceptive Failure Rates in the US: New Estimates from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth,” by Haishan Fu, Jacqueline E. Darroch, Taylor Haas, and Nalini Ranjit, Family Planning Perspectives 31, no. 2 (1999), accessed December 1, 2012, http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3105699.html.

6 . Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw, “Disparities in Rates of Unintended Pregnancy in the U.S., 1994-2001,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 38, vol. 2 (2006): 90-6.

7 . Ibid.

8 . A. Sonfield, C. Alrich, and R. B. Gold, “Public Funding for Family Planning, Sterilization, and Abortion Services, FY 1980–2006,” Occasional Report No. 38 (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2008).

9 . Daniel Patrick Moloney, “Forcing the Poor to Stop Having Children,” The Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good, The Witherspoon Institute (May 1, 2009), accessed December 1, 2012, http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2009/05/23. According to Moloney’s analysis, birth control is a mandatory part of state Medicaid programs. Any state that does not want to offer family-planning services will face a penalty and lose other Medicaid funds. When dealing with most other services, including life-saving services such as chemotherapy, the states have a choice about whether to offer them. The unmistakable message is that preventing births is more important than preserving life. The extraordinarily favorable coverage of birth-control costs is not a morally neutral posture. The states also cannot adopt their own policies about providing birth control to minors over the age of puberty. This policy has embedded within it the highly dubious empirical claim that making artificial birth control available promotes health and prevents unwed teen pregnancy more effectively than other policies which are less favored by the government. Such policies might include promoting the confinement of sexual activity to marriage, teaching the natural rhythms of the body, or providing teens with non-sexual activities to fill their time. Medicaid extends to children the same right to doctor-patient confidentiality that adults have, and parents are prohibited from knowing whether their dependent children receive birth control. In effect, the federal government requires the states to undermine parental supervision and authority over their children.

10 . Contraception has been legally available to married couples since the Griswold v. Connecticut decision in 1965, and available to unmarried individuals since the Eisenstadt v. Baird decision in 1972.

11 . The Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) prohibited any restrictions on the sale of contraception or access to contraception information to married couples.

12 . Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), 227.

13 . Claudia D. Goldin, “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment,” The American Economic Review 81, vol. 4 (September 1991), 741-756.

14 . See for instance, from the Catholic perspective, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on The Collaboration of Women and
Men in the Church and in the World.”  From a Jewish perspective, see David P. Goldman, “It Takes a Congregation,” First Things blog, June 26, 2009, accessed December 2, 2012, http:// www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2009/06/it-takes-a-congregation. (“The human bride and bridegroom unite in mystical emulation of God’s espousal of Israel, and the very mountains of Israel dance in joy with each wedded pair.”)

15 . Ephesians 5:25.

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