Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Contraceptive Culture Isn't Just About the Pill: Part One

This is part one of a forthcoming series on our Contraceptive Culture. I've decided to write on a few topics that are of major concern to me. If you would like to write a guest post, please comment, and we can get in touch.


Yesterday a friend of mine, who is currently nursing her three month old, was called to jury duty. She called to ask about whether she could be excused to pump during the trial days. They declined to allow her the time to pump. Instead of letting her know that they just couldn't accommodate nursing mothers during trials, they told her to simply fill out an "undue hardship" form, and dismissed her from duty.

This says something about our confused society, and its contraceptive culture. I understand why it would be difficult to excuse a juror to allow her to pump during a trial, but the language we, as a society, use to describe her reason for dismissal--undue hardship--is telling. It indicates that a mother, a woman, who is doing something completely natural to her essence (nursing a baby) is experiencing an undue hardship in general, not to mention one which prevents her from fulfilling her civic duty. The language is discriminatory, and inaccurate. I'm not asking the judicial system to allow breaks every three hours in a trial just so that women can nurse. I'm asking them to change the language they use for exceptions such as these.

Why am I so upset about language? Aren't I being a little fastidious? Am I just overly concerned with semantics?

I would argue that the way we speak, the language we use, shapes our thoughts and attitudes. Language is meant to express thoughts and attitudes, but because language is a limited expression, it also limits the way we think about things. This is why we, in the pro-life movement balk at being called "anti-choice" or "anti-women's rights." These terms are not only inaccurate (they don't describe what we actually stand for), they are offensive (they describe us, as a people, in negative terms).

Thus, when we describe nursing mothers as having an undue hardship, we introduce a multitude of complications into the matter of women and civic duty, women and motherhood, babies and children. The problem, for me, is that  the description for undue hardship, at least in my state, includes nursing mothers among other things that are actually undue hardships such as mental or physical incompetence. I just don't see why they couldn't have an exemption for nursing mothers, and just call it that. As it stands, designating nursing mothers with the term "hardship" indicates that nursing a child is "something that causes or entails suffering or privation" (Webster's). And this is where we come down to contraceptive culture.

A woman nursing a child does not actually entail a hardship. (Now, I know that for some women, nursing is difficult or impossible, and I do not mean to start the debate about nursing or formula feeding here. This isn't that discussion.) A nursing mother, one such as my friend, is not experiencing suffering or privation by nursing her baby; this makes the term "hardship" inaccurate.

Moreover, I argue that this term is also offensive, because it puts a negative connotation on nursing, and devalues the nursing mother's place in civic society. The use of "hardship" to describe the reason for excluding a nursing mother from her civic duty borders on discrimination, because it puts a value judgement on the act of nursing. It says, "nursing a baby is too hard on women" and by extension, "being a mother, doing something completely natural to (though not required of) a woman's essence, is a cause of suffering." (Of course being a mother does cause suffering and sacrifice, but as Catholics, we see these sufferings as redemptive. On the other hand, society views them as unnecessary, and therefore invalid.)

I understand the system must walk a fine line here. I know it is balancing the its inability (maybe even a justifiable inability) to accommodate nursing mothers, with their desire to accommodate women. Yet here is the cultural disconnect: Mothers are women. You cannot claim to accommodate women, and at the same time deem it a hardship to do what mothers do, such that they are excluded from the activity. Women who are mothers cannot be amputated from the actions of motherhood, or from their children, though our contraceptive culture would prefer it that way. 

You can legitimately disallow infants to enter a jury box. You can even legitimately say, "We cannot allow nursing jurors a 15 minute break every three hours (to pump) due to the nature of the trial proceedings."

Yet this system, and our culture, constantly engages in this game of separating the human person from what is good and natural for human beings, and then walking the fence-line of discrimination and value judgments based on these false premises. We wallow in mixed messages.

By all means, have sex, but don't have a baby! (That's what contraception and abortion are for!)

You can get married, but it doesn't matter if you're two men, two women, or one woman and one man!

We are feminists, but you can't call yourself a feminist unless you support free contraceptives and abortion on demand. 

You can be a mother, but don't do things that mothers do in public, such as nurse your baby or insist that your unborn child is actually a human.

You can be a woman and be pregnant, but don't ask for maternity leave, and especially don't ask for leave with pay!

We want women's rights, but not baby's rights.

We want women's rights in the workplace, but not pregnant women (they are disabled!), and not nursing mothers (they are under undue hardship!)

Instead of all of this confusion, why not use language that actually says what we mean? Why co-opt words to mean things that they don't (feminism, marriage, and "choice" are some of these)? Why not avoid the inaccurate and offensive connotations of words that aren't necessary to describe a situation, such as "hardship," and use language that makes sense for the situation?

You may still wonder why I am so upset about words. The practice of using inappropriate or inaccurate language for situations like this is a big deal because it betrays societal attitudes regarding mothers, motherhood, babies, and humans in general. They are attitudes that are not favorable, or even logical and accurate, regarding women and motherhood, babies and humanity. That is why I'm so worked up about words.

In part two, I'll discuss the contraceptive culture betrayed by people's attitudes toward "screaming babies" at Mass.


  1. Amen!!! Beautifully stated - and I agree so so much! Our language matters. We are drowning in a sea of inconsistencies.

  2. I admire your friend for being so gutsy by telling the whole court room she needed to pump. I'm not sure the "undue hardship" form is representative of a contraceptive culture, but sheer bureaucracy. If you have a job that doesn't pay time for jury duty (most retail work), that'd be an undue hardship, too. Pregnant women going out for maternity leave often go on short-term disability leave. That's just what it's called although I'd agree it's insulting.

    But that speaks to the larger issue of discrimination against women in the workplace. I don't think there's a broader conspiracy in our society to taint every segment of our culture in contraception.

  3. Hi Airing the Chapel; thanks for reading.

    I do agree that the undue hardship form is a result of bureaucracy.

    Still, I don't think I would say that there is a conspiracy to taint every segment of culture; rather, I think it is the other way around. I think that the contraceptive mentality has a subtle pervasiveness that invades our way of thinking about things, such that we allow our bureaucracies to put these inaccurate labels on pregnant women an nursing mothers, among others.
    I would also argue that discrimination of women in the workplace is a result of many sins, but is perpetuated in our modern day by the contraceptive mentality.

  4. I agree that the language of "undue hardship" for your friend's jury duty excuse is contradictory to the very nature of nursing(for most women). I do think that it is just another way the subtle language our culture uses to push family life out of society.


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