March 8th, I noticed on my kitchen calendar, is International Women’s Day. March is also Women’s History Month. A good time for some awareness-raising. Nicholas Kristof has done admirable work on that front in his New York Times column. If he hasn’t already received one, he deserves a humanitarian award.

The plight of women worldwide is appalling, confirmed by recent media reports on everything from homicidal gang rape in India to widespread sexual violence in the ranks of the U.S. military, “with an estimated 26,000 service members experiencing unwanted sexual contact annually,” Kristof wrote in his column last July, shortly after Malala Yousafzai spoke to the U.N. on her 16th birthday.

Yousafzai is the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting education for girls. That’s what Anne Smedinghoff of River Forest was doing in Afghanistan, promoting education by bringing books to a village. Yousafzai somehow survived her ordeal. Smedinghoff, as we know, did not.

In her talk to the U.N., Yousafzai said educated girls would be a powerful force for change worldwide. As Kristof summarized it, “a girl with a schoolbook studying under a tree or in a mosque … will, on average, have fewer children, be more likely to hold a job and exercise more influence; her brothers and her children will be less likely to join the Taliban.”

Kristof also points out that, according to a Guttmacher Institute report last July, “without publicly financed contraception programs in 2010, the unintended pregnancy rate [among teenagers in this country] would have been 73 percent higher.” Those are the programs our reactionary legislators (mostly men) have been trying to cut, with the blessing of the Catholic Church hierarchy (all men).

Yet the Church could be another powerful force for change in the world, simply by taking a strong stand in support of women. It is the largest religious organization in the world (1.2 billion members) and also one of the most severely patriarchal.

But they have an opportunity to leverage their influence on this issue. An important World Synod of Bishops is scheduled for this October in Rome. In preparation, the Vatican solicited feedback through a survey to gauge Catholics’ attitudes toward the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family. Not many American dioceses have actively distributed this questionnaire, but those that have, confirmed by results from dioceses in other countries, indicate that the vast majority of regular church-going Catholics embrace contraception and believe the Church’s teachings are badly out of date. The National Catholic Reporter has an article on the St. Petersburg, Fla. diocese in the Feb. 28-March 13 issue, for those who are interested.

Currently, the Catholic hierarchy, in its Ahab-like mission to destroy the Great White Whale of abortion — an obsession even Pope Francis criticized — has, since Roe v. Wade in 1973, coupled contraception with abortion as twin evils. But the two are very different. The Catholic laity recognizes that. The hierarchy does not. Contraception (pre-conception birth control) has been embraced for decades by almost all non-ordained Catholics as moral. Abortion (post-conception birth control) has not, even by many of those who, like me, remain firmly “pro-choice.” 

Overturning the official ban on contraception is long overdue. In fact, the Church should go one step further and embrace contraception, not as a “necessary evil” or a “surrender to the will of the disobedient laity” but as reflecting a healthy partnership with the divine in which the couple determines, as much as precaution allows, when to bring life into the world — as the consequence of a loving relationship, firmly within the context of respect and reverence for life. Approving contraception would not undermine the Church’s teaching on abortion. On the contrary, it would advance the moral argument against it.

But more important, the Catholic Church would send a powerful message to the world that they affirm the dignity of women by putting them in greater control of their destinies. 

Right now, male-dominated societies around the world see an overly patriarchal Catholic Church as their silent, if unwitting, ally in oppressing women. Misogynists no doubt feel reinforced by the perceived inequality of women in the Catholic Church. Overturning the contraception ban would help to remove that inferred consent.

The Church can do more good than any other single organization to raise the quality of life for women around the globe by taking such a step. They could, of course, take other steps that would send an even clearer message. But approving contraception would have real impact. 

Ultimately, the world cannot advance until men and women are treated as equals. The Catholic Church can, and should, take a position of leadership on this, and the laity should call for more of that leadership.

Susan B. Anthony, America’s best known suffragist, said, “The day will come when man will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in the councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.”

As Nicholas Kristof reports, Malala Yousafzai put it more simply when she addressed the United Nations last July: 

“We cannot all succeed if half of us are held back.”

Anne Smedinghoff, I suspect, would have been in full agreement. 

Join the discussion on social media!