It was hard to overlook the not-so-subtle irony. During the same week: (1.) President Obama signed an executive order reversing former president Bush's embryonic stem-cell research policy. (2) The Vatican was blasted for (supposedly) saying that the washing machine had more to do with liberating women than the pill. (3) President Obama created a Presidential Council for Women and Girls.
Clearly, conventional wisdom has it that, between Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama, the latter is the feminist and the former is a lingering, oppressive, patriarchal figure. And if you had any doubts about it, look at the president's new council! He may not have his Treasury department staffed in this time of economic crisis, but at least the sisterhood is happy.
President Obama, no doubt about it, is a loyal follower of the liberal feminist agenda. Despite commentators suggesting that he has not delved into the culture wars, he has, in fact, already started to make an indelible mark. The same week -- Obama's first in office -- of the annual March for Life, commemorating the tragedy that has been Roe v. Wade, he made sure that U.S. taxpayer money could be spent on abortions overseas. Now, he has rejected another one of his predecessor's wise moves: the careful balance Bush struck between scientific innovation and moral responsibility.
I'm reminded of something my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in his life-preserving resource "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life" (Regnery, 2006). At the time, thinking Hillary Clinton might be the next Democratic presidential nominee, he imagined a landslide for her if, while touting her "advocate for women and children" bona fides, she were to say that abortion is "distressing and difficult." She (fictionally) continues: "But that doesn't mean we're for abortion. Don't let anyone pretend that's what we stand for! Abortion is a tragic choice. We want to liberate women. Abortion is a sign that our society is pitting them against their children."
President Obama does not share the wisdom of our imaginary Hillary, who looked for common ground and reached out to the majority of the public that favors waiting periods, consent and notification requirements, and other restrictions. Instead, he's looking to obfuscate and muddy the matter with rhetoric and wily hypotheticals. He is following the disingenuous lead that others have set out before him. This is in spite of science that would very easily make common ground viable. Just ask former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who managed to get his colleague from the state, pro-choice Sen. Arlen Specter, to co-sponsor legislation that would support non-embryonic stem-cell research -- promising alternatives that are ethical and not giant, federally funded leaps into a Brave New World.
The Vatican, needless to say, opposed the Obama administration's embryo-destroying move. And as at least one member of Congress correctly noted, the Vatican holds the more authentically feminist position. Besides the lives we weren't ending under the Bush policy, there are the women we were working not to exploit. Embryonic stem-cell research requires the creation of embryos for the purpose of research. This requires women's eggs. And, like the egg-donor-wanted ads I see on New York commuter trains, that opens a whole new can of ethical concerns (not to mention fertility dangers) we've not openly debated.
But back from the eggs to the washing machines -- a story in which the hot-button hyperbole has almost totally obscured the facts. The mass media has accused the Vatican of asserting that washing machines have done more for women's lib than affordable birth control. In truth, the ruckus arose from an opinion piece (written by a woman) in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. The title, in the most-cited English translation, was: "The Washing Machine and the Liberation of Women - Put in the Detergent, Close the Lid and Relax." Addressing the question of what 20th century phenomenon did the most for the female sex, the author wrote, "The debate is heated. Some say the pill, some say abortion rights and some the right to work outside the home. Some, however, dare to go further: the washing machine."
If you think she is crazy, you should know there're a lot of us who believe the same. I wrote a piece years ago titled "How Birth Control Changed America for the Worst." And with every Yaz commercial, I become more convinced. As it happens, it was the Vatican -- this time, the pope himself speaking ex officio, in 1968 -- that warned in "Humanae Vitae" that artificial methods of birth control would do our culture a disservice. Humans being humans, Pope Paul VI said that the availability of the pill could "could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards" and that "a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."
The word "feminist" is too loaded to be recovered by the true protectors of the feminine in the 21st century. But had someone set up a Council on Women and Girls in 1968 based on those papal warnings, the phrase "hook-up culture" might not even exist and the sad stories of "He's Just Not That Into You" would be anomalies instead of pathetic realities.