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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Women Speak for Themselves

Conscience and the New Catholic Feminism

Brian Green


As part of the Markkula Center's yearlong series of talks on conscience, Helen Alvare professor of law, George Mason University School of Law, came to discuss conscience and religious freedom. Alvare has been near the center of the controversy between the US government's Health and Human Services contraceptive coverage mandate and the US bishops' and others' appeals to stop the mandate in the name of religious freedom and conscience. Her "Women Speak for Themselves" initiative proposes a feminist critique of the HHS mandate and has gained tens of thousands of supporters. Here is a summary of what she said.

Professor Alvare framed the discussion in the context of women's flourishing. The first trend she noted was that women's flourishing has been harmed over the past decades, with women's self-reported happiness steadily declining. She asked why it was that women are less happy now than in the past, when during this same time, men's happiness has increased. Her response was that this reversal of which sex is happier is correlated to the way relationships have changed over the last 50 years. Marriages used to be stronger, sex was more relational and less recreational, and children and family meant more. Women's flourishing, Alvare argued, is strongly correlated to the strength of marriages and family, and keeping sex in the context of marriage. She noted society's increasing greater sexual expressivism, which relies on contraception and abortion, and has eroded the strengths of relationships and therefore women's flourishing as well.

Alvare went on to note a second trend: in all religions around the world, women tend to be the most devout, and therefore religious freedom is also deeply connected to women's flourishing. These two trends, that women are less happy with today's sexual climate and that they also are more religious, come together in the HHS mandate. The mandate therefore exists as a kind of double-attack on women's flourishing, not only impeding religious freedom, but also encouraging harmful sexual expressivism.

Alvare argued that she finds sexual expressivist feminism not to be feminism at all, but rather a deeply disrespectful oppression of what it means to be female. Women cannot find liberation by being forced to become like men, which is what sexual expressivism tries to do. Women need to be respected as women. Women should not have to be childless so that they can compete with men. Alvare argued that European countries are tackling this issue in a better way than the HHS mandate is. Rather than trying to make women competitive by making them childless, European governments instead mandate paid family leave, thus enabling families to have children and remain economically secure.

Alvare's "new Catholic feminism" varies from sexual expressivism and is based on the idea of the complementarity of the sexes. Humans are radically equal, she argued, and this equality is best grounded in religious faith, but men and women are not the same and do not flourish in the same ways. Alvare continued that advocates of religious freedom needed to prove that their way is right by being allowed to live freely and thus show that women who live this way in fact really are happier than those who do not. She mentioned that there is already considerable research supporting her position, but that it tends to be ignored because sexual expressivism has such a strong hold on Western culture.

In support of her assertions, Alvare cited sociological, psychological, and economic studies that show that women are dissatisfied with non-relational sex. Economically-speaking, due to easy access to contraception and abortion, the "price" of sex has dropped to near zero, and therefore women who would rather not be having sex are drawn into it as the price of having any relationship at all. Contraception also generates risk-compensation behavior (behavior where feeling safer leads to taking more risks), thus increasing the risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases, which negatively affect women more than men. She cited a study that showed that in every country where contraception was introduced before abortion, abortions actually increased because it is used as a back-up for failed contraception – this is due to risk compensation behavior. These negative effects end up hurting poor women the most, so the most vulnerable members of society are the most harmed.

Moving on, Alvare asked why there is no hormonal contraceptive pill for men. The technology does exist and has been tested, but the side-effects were deemed to be too negative. And yet the side-effects are the same as those that women get – why is it that women, then, are expected to endure the negative effects, but not men?

Returning to the HHS mandate, Alvare wondered why, given all the above data, the government is still so interested in forcing the HHS mandate onto institutions which propose a different vision of women's flourishing. Why must the government try to force compliance on a minority in this case? She discussed John Paul II's theology of the body to get a bit into the depth of the Church's theology on this. These are not just beliefs that can be easily discarded, she argued, these are deeply connected to core beliefs about the nature of God and humanity. The federal government has no business trying to tell religious organization how to interpret their own religion.

Alvare discussed some of the details surrounding the HHS mandate and the court cases which are opposing it. The state has to have a compelling interest in order to abrogate religious freedom. Corporations have rights to speech and association, why no to religious exercise? If religious exercise is excluded from the rights that corporations have, then that effectively bans religious people from incorporating, which violates neutrality. Why would environmentalists be able to incorporate but not religious people? Why can military conscientious objectors appeal to any life-organizing belief for their status, but corporations cannot do the same? She mentioned that she has endured threats of torture and murder just for presenting her case, and wondered why what she was saying was so threatening to some people.

Lastly, Alvare addressed some audience questions on the environmental effects of birth control and the practicalities (or impracticalities) of not using hormonal contraception. Yes, hormones from the pill are in the water supply, it is a well-known problem, and many rivers in the US and around the world have hermaphroditic fish and other environmental problems because of it. She said the people she knows who use natural family planning (NFP) are the "greenest atheists" or the most religious. As for the practicalities of it, she admitted that NFP can be difficult and it requires a partner who is willing to cooperate, but isn't that exactly what a respectful relationship should be like?

Altogether, Helen Alvare's talk was provocative and helped make clear how deep the root of conscience goes into some of the most contested issues of our contemporary world.

Podcast : Women Speak for Themselves

Brian Green is assistant director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Feb 1, 2014