Context matters. If we are to be evangelists who effectively share our counter-cultural values, we must thoroughly respond to the complex issues of our time. This demands that we consider context.
It is for this reason that I have a hard time getting behind and relating to the educated, Catholic, American women who missed the context of French President Macron's statement that a "perfectly educated woman" would never choose to have "seven, eight, or nine children." With a few rare exceptions, the women using the "postcards for Macron" hashtag all self-admittedly completed their education before having their seven or more children. However, this situation is not what Macron referred to in his comment.
Macron spoke about women in developing countries who married at a young age, before they are able to complete their education and with no means of family planning. Immediately following his ill-phrased comment, Macron clarified that he was talking about women in impoverished and isolated communities who start having children at very young ages (e.g. 12 years old); he was not referring to Western women who choose to have several children for religious or other reasons. He said, “I’m fine with a lady having seven, eight children if this is her choice, after education. . . .This is not the case today. That’s why for me, education is the main answer — first, to avoid the worst; second, to maximize opportunities in African countries and in the rest of the world; third, to properly monitor demography.”
Macron clarified that he was talking about women in impoverished and isolated communities who start having children at very young ages
There is some truth to Macron's statement, given the context in which it was made (though it was poorly worded). Some Catholic American women did, however, miss the point by using examples of highly educated women in highly developed countries with many children to prove that mothers can both be well educated and have several children. Most of the women presented as examples to disprove Macron's assertion were not married off in their teenage years with no ability to family plan. They do not live in extreme poverty in a developing country, trying to finish their education while caring for multiple children.
Countless women throughout the world (specifically those in impoverished countries) do, in fact, have to choose between an education and motherhood. Research shows that African girls or women who have their first child at a young age are less likely to finish their education and more likely to have lower paying jobs.1 Even teenage mothers in the United States are less likely to receive higher education and more likely to live in poverty.
Additionally, the majority of women in impoverished countries do not have access to any sort of family planning, whether natural or artificial. 64% of all unintended pregnancies in developing countries result from an inability to regulate fertility. The women who do rely on what they believe to be natural methods of regulating fertility do not receive thorough education about these methods. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only 50% of women are aware of the rhythm method and the concept that women are fertile around the time of ovulation.
While I don't agree with Macron and those who believe the solution to this problem is throwing artificial contraception at these women, we Catholic feminists should do more to increase access to natural family planning. We need to acknowledge that, in developing countries, a young woman's inability to monitor or track her fertility renders obtaining an education extremely difficult, if not impossible (not to mention the fact that 99% of all maternal deaths in those countries occur from an inability to avoid pregnancy for legitimate health reasons).
Catholic feminists should do more to increase access to natural family planning.
So, what can we do to help?
We can begin by finding an alternative to the free contraception that Macron and others advocate for, and then help women in developing countries access this alternative.
Catholic Americans could provide NFP training materials to developing countries. NFP instructors could donate their time to women living in poverty and provide instruction for them over the phone or Skype.
Regardless of how we help, we need to do something. Thanks to natural family planning, Catholic women in well developed, wealthy countries have access to means of family planning in a pro-life context; women in developing countries do not have these same means, and that’s a problem we need to solve. Sometimes women have to avoid pregnancy for serious, life-threatening conditions and all women deserve the means to do just that, regardless of their home country or wealth.
Are women capable of pursuing higher education and being a mother of several children? Of course! Let us also remember that doing so is difficult. Even women with sufficient (and more than sufficient) financial means will face challenges while completing an education or having a career and being a mom to many.
Children are a blessing. Motherhood is beautiful. Education is a wonderful gift and opportunity. Managing all of that at the same time is not always practically compatible. Due to this, we should be concerned when women lack the knowledge and means to space their children and exercise responsible parenthood.
As we reflect on concrete ways we can help women access this vital knowledge and means of natural family planning, let’s ensure we remember the context in which we’re working.
1 Gyimah, Stephen Obeng (June 2003). "A Cohort Analysis of the Timing of First Birth and Fertility in Ghana". Population Research and Policy Review. 22 (3): 251–266.
This author would like to remain anonymous.