(RNS) — Paid family leave has long been supported by progressives. Rightly embarrassed by the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not guarantee parents time off to raise their infant children and children time to nurse aging parents, Democrats have pushed for mandating such leave, legislative session in and legislative session out, for decades.
In the last few years, however, conservatives have joined the conversation in a positive way. Republicans Mike Lee, Joni Ernst, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and Dan Crenshaw have all proposed measures to give mothers the chance to bond with their children after birth instead of immediately going back to work.
These proposals attempt to tie family leave support to Social Security or child tax credit payments, but the GOP will likely move toward the kinds of proposals offered by Kirsten Gillibrand, which offer 12 weeks of paid family leave as a new entitlement.
As Rusty Reno, editor of the conservative religious magazine First Things, wrote recently, “If (these proposals) run afoul of the preachments of Milton Friedman, then so be it.”
If the GOP’s old consensus of conservative economics is clearly breaking down, the impetus is the conservative commitment to life. As the Republican coalition falls apart, post-Trump religious conservatives like Ross Douthat and Sohrab Ahmari are becoming more and more comfortable rejecting libertarian economics in favor of pro-life tax credits and even government entitlements as long as they support life.
How is paid family leave pro-life? Let us count the ways.
First, and most obviously, it aids women and families in deciding that they can actually afford to have a child — an important consideration when deciding how to proceed after an unintended pregnancy. Americans are consistently having fewer children than they would prefer, and their reasons are quite telling.
Economic considerations dominate. Topping the list are issues like “child care is too expensive” and “financial instability.” But “not enough paid family leave” and “no paid family leave” were selected by 39% and 38%, respectively.
Paid family leave would clearly lessen the burden of an unplanned pregnancy, especially on mothers who already have young children — a group that currently procures half of all abortions.
Pro-lifers who hope for positive Supreme Court decisions might note that reducing the burden on women in this way would increase the likelihood that abortion restrictions would pass the “undue burden” test of Planned Parenthood v. Casey and thus be ruled constitutional.
Another pro-life issue is infant mortality. The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 — which guaranteed Americans unpaid time off to be with their children after giving birth — reduced infant mortality by 10%. Despite this progress, the United States continues to lag well behind comparable countries when it comes to the rate at which our infant children die. Paid family leave would expand upon this positive trend. One study estimates that 12 weeks of paid, job-protected leave would save the lives of at least 600 infants each year.
Indeed, the American Medical Association is now explicitly working toward paid family leave because, according to research, it is “associated with drops in perinatal, neonatal, post-neonatal, infant, and child mortality.” Hard to get more pro-life than that.
Some argue that paid family leave would hurt women in the workforce, with companies being less likely to hire potential mothers who could be gone from work for a substantial period. It was precisely this argument that was used against passage of the FMLA in 1993. But women as a percentage of the workforce has actually increased since that law's passage. States with paid family leave have also not seen increases in women’s unemployment.
Crafted correctly, paid family leave can honor human dignity at the end of life as well. Paid leave to care for one’s dying family member not only increases the benefits of that care, it can provide the opportunity to give due weight to this holy time by allowing the person’s family to say goodbye properly.
At a time when Congress seems hopelessly polarized and many believe our public discourse is broken beyond repair (with some even arguing that a cold civil war is already underway), the common ground available on paid family leave is a very significant countertrend. Religious pro-lifers should take advantage of our current moment by pushing Republicans to ditch their idolatrous focus on libertarian government and support genuinely pro-life policies.
This is actually a requirement for traditional Catholics, who are bound by the teaching of St. John Paul II that “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” and that “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.”
A pro-life appeal to common ground will go well beyond this important goal and possibly help us to make progress on future bipartisan measures, such as ending hopelessly expensive child care. For now, let us focus on making good on a requirement of procreative justice: the opportunity to parent and bond with one’s newly born children free from the obligations of work outside the home.