It’s always disconcerting when I agree with the pope. This week he said that women “must be protected and helped in this dual task: the right to work and the right to motherhood.”
The statement was timely, as Pope Francis’s often are. It comes as many major tech companies are making the news by increasing their maternity leave and paternity benefits, too. A few days after the pope made his statement about working moms, Amazon announced it would grant up to 20 weeks of paid leave for new birth mothers, and six weeks for fathers and adoptive parents. Netflix also recently announced it plans to offer unlimited parental leave to certain employees.
When popes and CEOs are united in saying something, chances are it’s not the most politically daring statement. Indeed, even in conservative circles, it’s not radical to declare that you want women to be able to have fulfilling jobs and also care for their families. The bold declaration would be to say that all women are not only deserving of this right, but that men are, too, and we are collectively obligated to ensure it. (Even bolder: advocating for real child-care options as well.)
Unlike the comparatively generous and broad parental-leave laws in other countries, Pope Francis and Netflix’s versions come with caveats. In the pope’s case, it’s about pushing a specific religious agenda (family first!) that explicitly ignores the years women spend trying not to get pregnant, and prevents access to abortion care, should they choose to not be pregnant. In the case of tech executives, it’s about competing with each other to attract high-level workers — and if you aren’t white collar, forget it. Netflix’s customer-service reps won’t get any paid leave. The expanded benefits that the pope and the tech CEOs are calling for sound like a step forward. But they’re doomed to fall short because they’re ultimately self-serving and don’t have broad empowerment as the goal.
The only way to empower all people to make the choices they want to make about their fertility and families is to protect their options with public policy. You don’t achieve widespread rights by relying on private employers that provide the benefits for only some workers, or listening to the pleas of the pope, who simultaneously advocates for fewer reproductive choices for people who aren’t yet ready to become parents. Not to mention the fact that both the religious figures and tech behemoths tend to frame this issue in terms of women’s responsibility: “maternity leave” not “paid family leave.” Which is very, very telling about how far we have to go.
Meanwhile, just as America is rekindling its superficial interest in this issue, China is revising its one-child policy. The government’s motivation, again, is not to enable people to make their own reproductive decisions. It’s about money. “They’re looking for other ways of growth,” said NPR correspondent Carlos Tejada in his report about the new two-child policy. “China needs consumers, and it’s going to be difficult to create a class of consumers when the country’s graying.” And so they’ve decided to limit women to having two children instead of just one — a change in restrictions that, much like family-leave perks for high-level employees in the tech sector, does nothing to empower most women to make choices about their lives.
There is a long, global history of advocates pushing for women’s autonomy as a way of achieving less noble goals. Many of the pioneers of reproductive rights were first and foremost concerned about population control and economic stability. In her 2009 book, The Means of Reproduction, journalist Michelle Goldberg explained that the earliest proponents of contraception primarily hoped to stem population growth, a goal they claimed was rooted in environmentalism, but had a lot to do with racism, too, as the growth they were concerned about was among nonwhite people. Reimert Ravenholt, the man who invented the world’s easiest and safest early-abortion method, was crucial to bringing family-planning methods to the developing world. But his efforts were not rooted in a desire to emancipate women. One of Ravenholt’s female colleagues told Goldberg, “These guys had no respect for women. None. At least that’s how I felt at the time.”
This is how I feel now, when I read statements from the pope about his commitment to working mothers. I agree with his call for better paid-leave policies, but I cringe at his framing that it’s all about mothers. And it’s impossible for me to see him as an ally on this issue when it is simply not possible for most women to even have a job outside the home without access to contraception — a right that the pope, for his much-lauded liberalism, still opposes. The same goes for tech bosses offering paid-leave policies to only their most valued employees, not all of those in the call-center cubicles or on the warehouse floor.
These powerful men are right — parental leave should be accessible, women should be able to reconcile work and motherhood, and draconian reproductive restrictions should be repealed — but for the wrong reasons. Think that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping care about women’s fundamental ability to make their own reproductive choices? Not really.
Sure, it’s tempting to applaud their new policies. But these tech companies are offering what should be an employment right as a flashy benefit alongside free snacks and yoga classes. For the rest of us — including most lower-wage employees — the policies don’t trickle down. Only 12 percent of private-sector workers have access to family-leave benefits at all.
Which is why none of these changes feel truly liberating. Amazon wants to attract more productive high-level workers. The Catholic Church wants to push its traditional-family agenda. China wants economic growth. None of them wants to empower women to chart the course of their own lives. Which is why agreeing with them about these minor policy improvements is so disturbing. Ultimately, we don’t want the same thing.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that most Amazon warehouse employees do not have access to their family-leave packages. The piece has been edited to reflect the full scope of the package.