I’ve heard from some people in the last few weeks who have asked me why I’m so focused on issues like contraception when we are in the middle of a titanic struggle over economic inequality in this country.
This is what I tell them: Two hundred years from now, when the historians write about the time of my life, the first, second, and third things they will discuss is the impact of feminism on ending three millennia of oppression of women. Compared to the changes on our lives wrought by feminism, the rise and fall of communism and the travails of social democracy are historical blips. I care deeply about economic inequality. But the central moral issue of our time is the status of women.
And that is what makes issues like abortion or even contraception hard. Some politicians who are otherwise progressive supporters of the rights of women are not with us on issues like contraception and abortion because of their commitment to the teachings of their church. Especially when it comes to abortion, some of them seem genuinely torn by competing religious and moral ideals.
But what we need to understand about these moral ideals is that the central issue on both sides of the abortion debate is the status of women. The religious opposition to abortion and contraception is not some free standing moral commitment disconnected from the moral status of women. Rather that religious opposition rests on opposition to equality for women.
The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and contraception doesn’t really rest on its claims about when life begins or about the nature of human sexuality. The Church seeks to embed its positions in the language of natural law. But its claims are not only unsound but inconsistent with the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. The arguments of the Church—and other religious groups—and the appeal of those arguments both to religious leaders and to the men (and some women) who accept them is, whether they recognize it or not, based on and rooted in their fundamental opposition to equality for women.
So if there is moral conflict on issues like abortion and contraception, the reason is that feminism is still a live issue. Fifty years after the revival of feminism, many of us are still struggling with fully accepting women a truly equal to men and all that it means for our lives and public policy.
No one should be surprised by this. No one should expect three millennia of oppression to end easily or without a major struggle. We’re closer to the beginning than the end of that struggle. And while we are at this point, opponents of equality for women will continue to find ways to use dispute about many different as a means of delaying further progress or reversing the progress we’ve already made.
But that is why those who claim to be political or moral leaders have a responsibility to address the real issues that stand behind our disputes on abortion and contraception and not duck behind hand wringing about conflicting moral and religious ideals.
Equality for women is the fundamental moral issue of our time. And it takes moral courage to stand for it in every respect, especially when it means standing up to religious teachings and teachers who, at base, still reject it.
When we look back at this time, those who stood up for women will, like those who stood against slavery in the 19th century, be seen as champions of enlightenment and human progress.
And those who found reasons to temporize, backslide, and compromise will be seen as people who couldn’t free themselves from limitations of their own time in order to point the way to the future