The Rights of Motherhood

International Theological-Pastoral Congress: "The Family: Gift and Commitment", Pontifical Council for the Family, Rio de Janeiro, 1-3 October 1997

Professor Janne Haaland Matlary, Department of Political Science and ARENA, Oslo University; Member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

"Today women have mostly been permitted to become industrial workers, office clerks or tram conductors; few are ministers, inventors or genial artists... most women can be mediocre tram conductors, as can most men, but only women can become mothers, however mediocre they be"

Sigrid Undset, "Et Kvinnesynspunkt", Oslo, 1922; Nobel laureate and Catholic convert

Eminences, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am privileged to be able to address this distinguised audience on the important topic of motherhood and its rights.

I speak to you as a fellow Catholic, as a mother who raises children in a thoroughly secularised society, and as a political scientist who is professionally very much interested in how society's norms can be influenced and changed in order to in turn affect political and economic changes that will act to support the rights of motherhood.


Motherhood gives rise to rights. Motherhood is essential to society's survival. Without mothers we would not exist. Mothers only have the unique privilege of nurturing the foetus for nine months, of nursing the child for much longer, of doing the work that consists of the thousand and one daily details - both practical and spiritual - that children require, and the tough work of raising adolescents - and later, often of looking after their children in turn. Fathers naturally do much of this work as well, but not nearly as much. Motherhood is more important than fatherhood, in practical terms as well as in physical and emotional terms, at least when the child is very small. Motherhood is different from fatherhood, and complements it. This is commonsensical to every parent.

Why speak about motherhood's rights? Because we are loosing them.

What are these rights? If you ask the woman in the street what they are, she will probably answer: The right to have a child and the right to abortion. Yet these are not rights of motherhood:

Notwithstanding what many people think, there is no right TO motherhood. Motherhood does remain a gift and not a right, in spite of the development of various types of fertilisation methods. Children are not objects that can be ordered, as one decides to procure a car or a house. This seems a necessary statement in this age of an instrumental view of the human person, where women claim a right to have children by these methods, even with the aid of the state. 'Infertility' is on this view an illness that can and should be cured as part of general public health schemes.

Likewise, there can be no right to not become a mother, once pregnant.

But talking about rights and even making them explicit legal rights does not solve any problems, but may rather create them. If motherhood is seen in isolation from the natural family setting, motherhood's rights easily becomes the individualised rights of any woman. When the Church speaks about motherhood's rights, it is the natural rights that flow from the solidarity and subsidiarity of the family that we talk about. It is motherhood as complementary to fatherhood within the family that is the implicit point of departure, not the woman in isolation from the family unit.

The modern political rights tradition is very different from this, and one should therefore caution against a proliferation of new rights based solely on an individualistic notion of the human being, especially when the topic is motherhood. Motherhood is essentially relational, both to fatherhood and to the child. Together these elements make up a family.

The erosion of motherhood

Motherhood has enjoyed special rights and status in all civilisations and religions. But at this time motherhood as an institution is in great crisis in many parts of the world, especially in the so-called 'advanced' West.

The basic cause of this break-down of the natural structure of the family - the illness of which the symptoms are signs - lies in the conception of the human person as an atomistic and selfish individual, self-regarding, instrumental in his relations with others, narcissistic and pragmatic. The idea of self-giving, which is the corner-stone of good motherhood and of a good human community, be it a family or political society - is thought to be for fools. Few teach that virtues are to be sought and vices fought in a society where these concepts are relics of the past. With pervasive value relativism; schools, media, and politics teach less and less about right and wrong. The family, perhaps especially the mother, should be the first to do this, but when she fails, and her family fails, the effects on society are great and grave.

The paradox is that today the importance of motherhood is greater than before because of this situation, yet it is harder than before to be a good mother because the family receives so little support.

Motherhood's natural rights

1. A mother's right to society's support

Turning to the question of the rights of motherhood, set against this canvas: What rights for mothers exist? What duties?

In order to fulfil the duty of forming one's children, we as mothers need society's support, in both normative as well as in very practical ways. This is a right that is the condition for all others: Never before has the family been more important to the formation of children, but never has it been under greater attack, and weaker.

The family as the essential institution of society, as its first 'cell', is weakened by two types of attack: One, political authorities have in many states gradually weakened the family as a 'bourgeois' institution by denying parents a choice of education for children or by defining adolescent children as bearers of rights like adults. For instance, in my country one is currently proposing to make the legal sexual age 15 years because one thinks that children of this age ought to have a sex life. This example shows that the state may define the limits of childhood and thereby the limits of parenthood and parental authority.

The old type of state intervention was an ideological attack on the family, aimed at creating political dominance over the latter. Remnants of this kind of ideology still exists, but I think that the second type of attack on the family is much graver. This is not an ideological attack on the part of the state as such, but the decomposition of the family influenced by diverse societal trends. These in turn put pressure on politicians, often through single-issue interest groups, for recognition of minority positions in the form of new rights.

There is also another sense in which society does not support motherhood: when it is economically impossible to sustain a family of several children. One way to rob motherhood of its realisation is to design tax systems that force women to have paid work - a reality in most of Europe today1 - another is the societal discouragement, through social policies, of having more than one child. Foreign aid programmes in developing countries often contain conditionality clauses on governments to institute such policies.

2. A mother's right not to have her sex life interfered with by political and social authorities

The logical first right of motherhood must surely be that of having one's children, of not being stopped through forced contraception or abortion. In the Church we speak of the parental right to decide on the number and spacing of children. This entails that parents decide when to have children, and how many.

3. A mother's right to work for her children and family

What happens once children are born? The mother needs time and energy to cope with breast-feeding, nursing, and taking care of all the practical work with small children. It should not need emphasizing, but this is hard physical work for which the mother alone is responsible. I have all respect for fathers who change nappies and heat bottles, but it does remain a fact that the major part of this work is done by mothers.

Further, the family needs an income that allows for children. Here we enter right into what ought to be the major political debate of contemporary feminism, but is not: how to reconcile motherhood with work in the home only, work outside the home; or, alternatively phrased; as the need to have a guaranteed family income.

The old feminism of the 70s only focussed on how to get women away from motherhood and family, not on how to offer women options for motherhood and professional work, or for working at home. However, in the Church's social teaching we find a very radical analysis of this most pressing issues for modern women:

Here there are two strong recommendations with regard to mothers and work: that working mothers should be able to pursue a career without being discriminated because she is a mother, and that a mother who chooses to devote herself to work in the home, with children, should be able to do so. In addition, there is the insistence on the right to a family income that can sustain a family with children.

We know that 'it pays' for any society to have strong families in the sense that parents provide the essential formation for their children. This 're-invention of the wheel' has now also been accomplished in most of Western society, but at a high price. Yet it remains virtually impossible, for economic reasons. for mothers to stay at home with children, even when they are small. This pragmatic fact speaks volumes about the lack of appreciation of the work mothers do with children.

4. A mother's right to work life without discrimination

Thus, not only should women be able to work outside the home while also being mothers, without discrimination in the work place; but work life itself should be structured so that women should be able to advance and compete without this having negative consequences for their roles as mothers. This is the very opposite of 'privatising' the 'cross-pressures' of mothering and professional work which typifies womens' work conditions today. It is a call not for only explicit recognition of the 'right to be different' for women, but also a demand that this difference form the basis for restructuring work conditions.

It is here essential that access to work life must not be had at the expense of our roles as mothers...

It is here essential that access to work life must not be had at the expense of our roles as mothers: "the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined "(FC, 23, our emphasis). But the work of the mother today is severly discriminated against in many states: "the mentality that honours women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome. This requires..that society should create and develop conditions favouring work in the home" (Ibid.).

The practical implications of this difference with regard to women and work is summed up in Familiaris consortio (FC)2, which critisizes the traditionally dominant attitude that women's place is in the home: "one cannot but observe that in the specific area of family life a widespread social and cultural tradition has considered women's role to be exclusively that of wife and mother, without adequate access to public functions, which have generally been reserved for men" (FC, 23). But women must rather be ensured rights and possibilities to work and to participate in public and political life, where they have been discriminated against throughout the ages.

Applied to contemporary reality, it is striking how absent political measures reflecting this difference are in all states, be they 'modern' or not. Mothers who also pursue a profession or participate in politics and public life must insist on the right to have this difference reflected in work conditions and other conditions for their full participation.

This requires, inter alia, that women should not be discriminated against when they apply for a job by being asked questions like "Will you soon have children?" if they have none, "will you have more?" if they already are mothers, or even "will you have a child if you get this job?" if they are older but still have no children. But we all know that women are asked precisely such questions, while men who are fathers have their fatherhood treated as if it had no relevance for the job situation. One cannot pretend that parenthood is irrelevant to one's work situation, but one must accept as a natural fact that women will be child-bearing when they establish themselves professionally, and that this must not be the basis for discrimination. Many are the women who have denied the importance of their motherhood in order to get a job, and also many have felt impelled to choose between a professional career and motherhood. This is because motherhood's work, and its coincidence in time with career establishment, hasbeen suppressed by both employers and women themselves.

Further, the right to be different implies that one does not lose one's job when becoming pregnant. A paid and sufficiently long maternity leave is here important, including the security that one does not lose one's job because of the absence with the baby. The relatively high birth rates in Scandinavia are without doubt related to the year-long paid maternity leaves. Such social policies are expensive, but much is also a question of political priority and will.

It will simply not do to have equal conditions for men's and women's work - this traps women into work conditions that imitate men's, and which ultimately lead us to 'privatise' the near-to insurmountable problem of 'cross-pressure'. Changes in the direction of developing rights for women as mothers to work on their terms demand a very radical rethinking of the relationship between family and work life. This process is only now in its very beginning in some societies which have gone through the full phase of 'equity feminism'. In this area the Church has the most realistic and just analysis of mothers' rights to be treated differently from men, not only in professional work life, but also in the essential 'upgrading' of the primary importance of motherhood.

The clear yet sad conclusion to this analysis of motherhood and work life is that if there is to be a realistic choice between work at home and outside the home for a mother, massive political as well as attitudinal changes must happen. This probably requires that women participate more in political life to effect such changes, but also that men start to take into account the fact that they are fathers when they negotiate their work conditions. - Being a parent is not a 'woman's problem' in work life - it is in fact no problem at all, but quite natural and necessary to any society with a future, and this should be reflected in work conditions.

5. A mother's right to educate her children

Another right of motherhood, and of parenthood, is that of educating one's children in choosing their schooling, in sex education, and in spiritual and religious matters. On the principle of subsidiarity, it is the parents and not the state that are responsible for making these choices. It follows from this that the state should make it possible to have such choices; in other words, that children should not be forced to accept educational schemes that go against the religious beliefs of the family.

The primary education in matters moral and sexual are the duty of parents, and it is obvious that mothers plays a major role here, especially from early childhood on.

In the Beijing conference as well as in other international fora it has become increasingly difficult to have this parental right recognised, and the national legislation in very secularised states such as my own make a instrumental type of sex education compulsory at an early age, even with the distribution of contraceptives.

In the sphere of religious instruction is is also very clear that a view of the human being that is entirely secular - as taught in secular schools - cannot promote the dignity of the human person. Such a secular view of the human being can never be neutral; it is anti-Christian. A Norwegian school text book starts by stating: "We are all animals". - Such a blunt way of putting it is perhaps still uncommon, but the major conflict is latent where religious parents live in a secularised state where there are perhaps few if any schools of their denomination.

Indeed, the secularised view of the human person that prevails in the West today makes the Christian vision of personhood a minority position. In almost all Western states, we are as Christians no longer a 'majority culture' that can set the norms of society. Precisely for this reason it becomes imperative to secure our parental rights in this regard in a very explicit way. This we must do through political and social action, in seeking to influence at all levels of society.


Which rights of motherhood are realised in today's world?

We have argued that women are denied their right to have the children they want in many states, by means that range from outright violence and coercion to more subtle oppression. We have further argued that very much is lacking in terms of appreciation of and support for women's work, both outside and inside the home. We also pointed to the problem of nihilism in many Western societies and its very direct consequences for motherhood's duties - and for the lack of fulfillment of motherhood's 'natural rights'.

The discrepancy betweeen what these rights entail and social and political reality today is large. The question then remains: what to do, where and how to begin?

First, there is no solution in receding into the private sphere when we discuss the advantages and drawbacks of policies for motherhood and the family: Not only are the economic parameters of the family a matter of tax and redistribution policies in every country - to a greater or smaller degree, but still to a considerable degree - but as I have argued here, the natural family based on heterosexuality needs the active political support of the state.

Today we have to fight for support of the natural family and against support for every life-style project involving children. As argued in the beginning, that the natural family exists, and that it should receive privileged treatment from the state, is far from obvious today. Instead, there is a sustained attack on the idea that something is more natural than anything else, and that human beings can discern what is natural, and therefore, good, for the child. A very clear effort is needed to maintain and argue for the natural family. This is a task for every citizen, and the major one for lay persons. Active involvement in family politics is called for now more than ever before.

Further, much improvement is needed to gain flexibility and improvements in the work conditions of women with small children. Here state-market partnerships are necessary, but the impetus for such are unlikely to come from the market. Today mothers are continually squeezed between work demands, modelled on men's organisation of work life, and the demands of motherhood. When we in addition know that men do far from their share of house-work, it is hardly surprising that families remain small.

In sum, we have to take much more charge than before at a time when media, market, and interest groups dominate public and political debate. This means that we have to be skilled at using these ways of persuasion and influence, and that we have to reinvigorate democracy by being very active citizens. As mothers we must expose that which is wrong, we must seek to show what motherhood is and how it should be lived, and we must point to its pre-eminence for society's life; for the 'summum bonum'. Noone is more naturally skilled at this than we who are mothers.

This is in many societies a time of crisis for motherhood, and with it, for children; and then in turn, for society. Therefore it is also a time for mothers to mobilise, not only in building strong families, but also in fighting in the public arena. In deed, and then in word.


In the Swedish analysis "Samhällets stöd til barnfamilerna i Europa", Ministry of Finance, Stockholm, 1995, shows that only in France and Germany does it pay for the husband to increase his income by 75% as opposed to having two incomes to a family. In other words, in most European states it pays to have two incomes instead of increasing one income by the same amount.
Familiaris consortio, Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, 22.11.1981
av Webmaster publisert 04.10.1997, sist endret 04.10.1997 - 20:18