Maya Warren’s story, as told in the Washington Post, is tragically not all that unusual. Burdened with significant debt, she was living paycheck to paycheck when (despite believing she was physically unable to conceive a child) she got pregnant.
She started working as an Uber driver in the evenings to try to save extra money, but the $15/hour she earned was not even close to enough — especially when she was forced to deliver her baby via C-section (putting her in further debt), a costly surgery which also came with a physician-recommended 12 weeks of rest.
Thanks to the legislative efforts of Democrats in 1993, federal law requires that women like Maya be free to take 12 weeks of leave from their job without being fired. But such leave is not paid.
Given her financial situation, it is not surprising that Maya went back to driving for Uber, against doctor’s orders, just days after giving birth.
Each step to and from the car caused her piercing pain, uncontrolled by unaffordable pain meds. She couldn’t yet go back to her day job (8 hours on her feet as a home health aid for seniors), but she felt coerced into doing something to pay some of her bills.
You may know that the United States, embarrassingly, is the only industrialized country in the world which puts its citizens through horrific experiences like this.
Most other countries offer mothers (and often fathers) paid family leave to allow for reasonable time to be away from work and still pay their bills.
Everyone from Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand to Republicans Marco Rubio and Donald Trump have proposed some kind of legislation designed to bring the United States into the modern world when it comes to these kinds of employment protections for women.
But most small government conservatives continue to balk, often arguing that mandatory paid family leave will kill jobs, especially for women.
But it was precisely this argument that was used against 1993 legislation mandating unpaid family leave. Awkwardly for such critics, women as percentage of the workforce has actually increased since passage of the Family Medical Leave Act.
Happily, U.S. states which have passed paid family leave have also not seen increases in unemployment.
What does the Catholic social tradition have to say about all of this? Pope St. John Paul II invites Catholics and all people of good will to embrace following teaching in his encyclical Laborem Exercens:
In this context it should be emphasized that, on a more general level, the whole labor process must be organized and adapted in such a way as to respect the requirements of the person and his or her forms of life, above all life in the home, taking into account the individual’s age and sex. It is a fact that in many societies women work in nearly every sector of life. But it is fitting that they should be able to fulfill their tasks in accordance with their own nature, without being discriminated against and without being excluded from jobs for which they are capable, but also without lack of respect for their family aspirations and for their specific role in contributing, together with men, to the good of society. The true advancement of women requires that labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role.
While the Archdiocese of Chicago recently began offering its employees 12 weeks of paid family leave, and Fordham offered me a full semester of paid family leave when my wife and I adopted three children last June, many Catholic institutions have fallen short when it comes to doing their part in structuring labor so that women do not have to pay special prices for becoming pregnant.
Part of the struggle, no doubt, is that not a few Catholic institutions are barely making it financially (especially elementary and high schools) and find it difficult to make the financial space for paid leave in highly competitive markets.
Given the fact that many other poorly-capitalized institutions find themselves in a similar position (big corporations, wanting to keep their best employees, generally already offer some kind of paid leave), there is even more reason to support a federal program that would offer paid leave to all women.
Doing so, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of justice for women, will also likely save the lives of prenatal children. About half of all abortions take place in situations where the mother has already had one or more child.
Can you imagine the financial strain Maya would have been under if she already had two or three kids? Unpaid time off just isn’t enough to convince women in financially desperate situations, especially if they have other mouths to feed.
Our patriarchal culture has established the male, unpregnant body as normative—and the pregnant body as burdensome and diseased. The assumption that one must be unpregnant in order to flourish in our culture is built into many of our institutions.
Catholic teaching, however, resists this patriarchal assumption by calling for a labor structure which refuses to punish those of us who can get pregnant.
Mandatory paid family leave for all wouldn’t get us there by itself, but it would be a major step in the right direction.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars.